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Court finds divestment referendum constitutional

The Student Government Supreme Court deemed a controversial referendum constitutional and it will be put on the student ballot this year. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

The controversial topic of divestment of the USF Foundation will be sent to the student body after the Student Government (SG) Supreme Court deemed a student referendum constitutional.

The referendum, titled “USF Divest From Fossil Fuels, Private Prisons and Companies Complicit in Human Rights Violations,” calls for the Foundation to end investments in companies that have a direct connection with contributing to the use of fossil fuels, funding private prisons and investing “in human rights violations in Palestine and Yemen.”

The referendum was presented to SG as a petition to get on the election ballot. The petition had 3,465 signatures, according to Sen. Nick Stevens. In order to get on the ballot, the signatures needed to be verified and the court to deem it constitutional.

Of the five justices who saw the case, three ultimately agreed that the referendum should go on the ballot. 

The referendum, if passed, would be non-binding and wouldn’t require action on the part of the university or the Foundation. According to USF Spokesman Adam Freeman, The Foundation listened to student concerns about where it invests in May of 2014 and came to a decision then.

“The issue of divestment has been proposed numerous times since 2013, either through student elections, student petitions or Student Government, often led by the same student organization or group of students,” Freeman said in a previous statement to the Oracle. “Since the issue was already considered by the USF Foundation, it will not be taken up again or voted on at future meetings.”

The issue of divestment has come up several times over the past few years. 

A similar referendum made it to the ballot in 2013, which led to then-Student Body President Brian Goff issuing an apology to the student body for inconsistencies with Florida Statutes and USF policies. 

That referendum only discussed divestment from companies purportedly complicit in human rights violations. 

Last spring, the issue came up to the SG Senate in the form of a resolution that was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the court for targeting a specific group and violating Senate statutes by calling for a committee of students, staff and faculty.

The current referendum also calls for a committee of students, staff and faculty to “screen unethical investments” made by the USF Foundation. 

The referendum is expected to appear on this year’s ballot. The court evaluated it based on validity, consistency and constitutionality. Assuming approval of the signatures, the court found the referendum valid. 

After some initial confusion based on what would actually be presented on the ballot, the court also ruled that the referendum was consistent. Finally, the court voted unanimously that the language in the referendum is constitutional.

“It is (the) decision of the majority of the USF Supreme Court that Student Referendum 57-001 passes all constitutional conformity prongs necessary for referendum review required by statutes and the Student Body Constitution,” the official opinion states.

Associate Justice Sierra Francis abstained from the decision. Milton Llinas, the court’s Chief Justice, disagreed with the majority ruling and is expected to release a dissenting opinion later this week.