ASA is in the right, but court isn’t the answer

Arizona Students’ Association (ASA) has been the subject of a lot of press coverage lately, not only here in The Lumberjack, but across the state. The latest developments have involved the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) voting to destroy ASA’s funding mechanism in retaliation for the group’s support of Proposition 204, the Quality Education and Jobs Act. ASA, in turn, has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against ABOR for punishing an act of political speech. While ABOR’s decision regarding the two-dollar ASA fee is wrong, and can be justifiably challenged in court, a lawsuit is the wrong way to respond.

In 2012, ASA helped get Prop 204 on the ballot and donated money to the “Yes on Prop 204” campaign. Had it passed, Prop 204 would have made permanent a one-cent sales tax increase for education that voters had approved in 2010, as opposed to letting the increase expire in 2013. University students had a vested interest in preventing the sales tax from going back down, because that would mean less money for their schools, which usually translates to a higher cost of attendance.

As a representative student body, ASA’s support of Prop 204 was nothing more than an attempt to serve its constituents. It did the same thing in 2010, when it worked to get the one-cent sales tax increase approved in the first place. This time, however, a group of disgruntled ASA directors at Arizona State University resigned in protest of ASA’s political work. The students brought their concerns to the conservative Goldwater Institute, which published a damning, one-sided report on ASA and got the attention of ABOR.

ASA has been funded by student referendum since 1998, when students voted to pay a small fee every semester to help fund the organization. The fee was mandatory, but refundable upon request, so if you did not like what ASA was doing, you could get your money back. ABOR changed the funding mechanism to opt-in instead of opt-out; students now have to consciously donate two dollars every semester for ASA to receive the money.

ABOR technically does not have the authority to change a fee enacted by student referendum. The regents are appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer, a historic enemy of ASA; this is one of the reasons it is important for ASA to get its funding independently of ABOR. Did ABOR illegally punish ASA for a legitimate form of political speech? Yes.

But that is exactly missing the point. In 2012, ASA helped defeat a bill that would have forced us to pay $2,000 of our tuition out of our own pockets. In 2011, ASA fought to make sure we can still get the Pell Grant. We need ASA. Unfortunately, since the summer of 2012, its resources have been almost totally consumed by Prop 204 and the subsequent fallout. For nine months, ASA has been swamped by legal issues and the labyrinth that is the state political system. How much more time and money will this lawsuit take?

ASA has more than enough reason to take ABOR to court, and their fears of being completely crushed by the new funding system are legitimate. I know ASA and the people who work for it here at NAU; I know, regardless of the status of the fee, those people will work for their constituents using whatever resources they can find. And they know every day spent trying to save funding is a day not spent on the ground, fighting for students’ rights.

In the face of the vicious, unfair and unwarranted attacks from within the organization as well as from outside, it’s natural to respond angrily with a middle finger and a court date. Sometimes, however, it’s better to take your licks and come back stronger next time. Let those in opposition of ASA and Gov. Brewer think they’ve won, because the courtroom and the senate floor are home field for people like them. ASA plays at the grassroots level and that game is definitely not over.

Originally published in The Lumberjack (http://www.jackcentral.org/opinion/columns/opinion-asa-is-in-the-right-but-court-isn-t/article_9aa4fb36-3d40-54dc-a6cf-4b6eb917b5f1.html)

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