Claiming illegal retaliation, the Arizona Students' Association is asking a federal judge to void a vote by the Board of Regents changing how its fees are collected.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, says students have voted, twice, to allow the fees. While collected automatically as part of tuition, students can request a refund.
But the regents voted in November to suspend the fee. And finally, earlier this month, the board voted to allow the fee again beginning with the fall semester -- but only on an "opt-in'' basis.
And the policy requires the association to reimburse the universities for any administrative costs of collecting the fees.
Attorney Stephen Montoya claims both actions are in retaliation for the association's advocacy last year of Proposition 204.
That measure, which ultimately failed, would have imposed a new, permanent one-cent sales tax, with the proceeds largely earmarked to fund education, including some money for the universities and financial aid. It was designed to take effect in June when the current temporary one-cent levy approved by voters in 2010 expires.
The ballot measure was opposed by Gov. Jan Brewer. And most of the voting members on the board are Brewer appointees.
Montoya is asking the federal court to rule that the regents' action violates the association's constitutional free speech rights.
"The Board of Regents' suspension and modification of its policies governing its collection of the ASA student fee is also proximately causing a chilling effect on ASA's political speech,'' Montoya claims. He said the change will cause "immediate, irreparable injury'' to the association by depriving it of its only source of income.
Regents' spokeswoman Sarah Harper said the board will have no comment on the lawsuit until its members are formally served. But she said reasons for the change can be gleaned from comments made last year by board Chairman Rick Myers about the initial decision to review the fees.
Myers said while the $2-per-semester fee is refundable, the process for getting the money back was not understood by many students. And he said some board members questioned "the propriety of providing collecting services through our public universities for a well-financed and active independent political association.''
But Brianna Pantilione, the association's treasurer, said that ignores the fact that the fee and the opt-in system was approved by students and that the regents had no question about the process -- until now.
"Suddenly, we contributed to Proposition 204 -- and suddenly there's a problem,'' she said.
Eddie Walneck, a University of Arizona law student who also serves on the association board, said any contention that the change was made because of the group's political involvement is belied by its history.
He said the association supported Proposition 100, the original temporary sales tax hike, in 2010. Walneck said no one raised any question about the association's involvement in politics when it was backing something supported by the governor.
Only when the association took a position contrary to Brewer, he said, did anyone question the association's funding.
"It definitely was political,'' he said.
There is one difference, though: The backing of Proposition 100 involved no direct funding; the association donated more than $120,000 of its budget to the pro-204 effort.
Regent Jay Heiler acknowledged that last year's election did play a role in the decision to review -- and alter -- the fees.
He said there had been some concerns about the fee, which generated more than $580,000 from students in the 2010-2011 school year. Then came the dust-up over the donation to the Proposition 204 campaign.
"That brought the matter into clear relief for everybody," he said when the issue arose last year.
Walneck said the change in how the fees can be levied, if not overturned, will directly affect the ability of the association to be actively involved in lobbying for issues concerning students.
"When it's an opt-out model, most people continue to pay the fee,'' he said.
"When it's an opt-in model, most people will not pay,'' Walneck said. "All the time that we will be spending trying to get people to opt in takes us away from the mission of the Arizona Students' Association to advocate for students.''