January 14, 2013
Lawsuit Says Florida Bright Futures FAFSA Requirements Violate Right to Privacy
Should students have to disclose highly personal details of their families' finances to the federal government as a precondition for receiving state scholarships based on academic merit? The Florida Legislature thinks so, but a new lawsuit insists it is unconstitutional.
The suit, originally filed in Miami-Dade County Court but subsequently removed to Leon County in November, is brought by attorney Adam Lawrence. Adam joins Bonnie Daniels and their son, William Lawrence, as plaintiffs in the action, which alleges that a 2011 state law that requires students to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as a precondition for qualifying to receive a Bright Futures Scholarship, violates Florida's constitutional right to privacy.
Bright Futures is the state scholarship program, offered to all high school seniors who attain high academic achievement and maintain it during the course of their undergraduate college education. The scholarships are not based on financial need
The FAFSA is an application to the federal government, by which students who meet certain need-based criteria can receive financial aid in the form of grants or loans.
William Lawrence graduated from the University of Miami in May 2012. The 2011 law kicked-in in his senior year, but William was denied his Bright Futures aid because of his and his parents’ refusal to fill out the FAFSA form.
The Florida Department of Education [FDOE] had “no compelling reason” to condition William’s receipt of Bright Futures on his and his parents' disclosure of “highly confidential and personal financial information,” the lawsuit reads. That information includes the following:
“William's 2010 adjusted gross income, the income tax he paid, his tax exemptions, his earnings, his cash on hand, the balances in his savings and checking accounts, his net worth, his untaxed income, and all monies that he may have received and all expenses that were paid on his behalf from all sources,” and
“Adam and Bonnie's 2010 marital status, Social Security numbers, adjusted gross income, tax exemptions, the income tax they paid, their earnings, their current total balance of cash, the amounts in their savings and checking accounts, the net worth of their investments, their payments to their retirement plans, their tax-exempt interest income, and all other untaxed income.”
The complaint says the 2011 requirements contradict both the “letter and intent” of Bright Futures – Florida law explicitly says the program is merit-based, not need-based – and the privacy rights protected by Article I, Section 23 of the Florida Constitution, which reads:
“Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided [in the Constitution].”
Neither Adam Lawrence nor FDOE attorney Steven Ferst would offer comment for this story.
NPR StateImpact reported on some of the controversy surrounding the new FAFSA requirement just after it went into effect in July 2011. Former state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, who headed the committee that sponsored the measure, said it was intended to help the state compile data on the economic profile of those availing themselves of the state scholarship program.
“Lynn wants to disprove the belief that the parents are buying BMWs for their Bright Futures students with money they would have otherwise spent on college,” according to the NPR report. It went on to quote Lynn: “We always intended for everyone to fill out the FAFSA form. ... We have no data on these students at all.”
But concerns were raised by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who warned the new requirement would have a chilling effect on the citizen children of illegal immigrants, who might refrain from filling out the FAFSA forms, and so from qualifying for Bright Futures, for fear of exposing their parents to deportation.
“I don’t think colleges and universities were in favor of this [new] form. Because they could have done this anyway instead of having the state mandate it,” NPR quoted Sobel. “They’re like surrogate immigration officials now. And I don’t think that colleges and universities want to get into that.”
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