Arizona Student Fee Dispute Reinstated

The Arizona Students’ Association won an important free speech victory Wednesday when a federal appeals court said University Regents must face claims they retaliated for the group’s support of a voter initiative to hike education funding by withholding funds.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit by the students holding that the ASA should be allowed to seek an injunction to bar future efforts by individual Regents to withhold student fees collected specifically for the ASA.

In 2012, Former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer opposed Proposition 204.  As an ex-officio member for the university board of regents she pushed a special meeting in which the regents voted in 2013 to suspend collection of the ASA fee and withhold money already collected based on ASA’s advocacy of Prop. 204.

Throughout 2012, the ASA advocated for passage of Prop. 204, a ballot initiative to increase public education funding. The ASA helped draft the text of the initiative, collected 20,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, co-drafted the ballot argument, campaigned and contributed $120,000 of its student-fee income to support Prop. 204.

The measure would have made a temporary one-cent per dollar sales tax, set to expire in 2013, permanent, extending the state sales tax rate to 6.6 percent. The measure ultimately failed.

The ASA, organized in 1974, is a non-profit that represents students in the state’s three public universities and advocates for affordable quality education and engages in political activity in support of financial aid and tuition policy.

In 1998, it voted to impose a $1 per semester fee per student to fund its work. In 2008, students voted to double the fee to $2 per semester with the regents collecting the fee and paying to ASA.

The ASA sued after the Regents withhold the funds shortly before the Prop. 204 vote. The trial judge dismissed the case saying the regents were protected by sovereign immunity as a government body from claims for damages for the lost fees and for an injunction to prevent future retaliation.

The 9th Circuit, while agreeing that the students could not collect damages for the past loss, did have a First Amendment claim that should be reviewed and may qualify for an injunction against retaliation in the future.

The case now goes back to the Arizona trial court.

Case: Ariz Students’ Ass’n. v. Arizona Board of Regents, No. 13-16639




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