University funds not allowed for campaigning
To act in accordance with Michigan laws, registered student organizations (RSO) receiving funds from Grand Valley State University must walk a tight line this election season to avoid financially backing a particular presidential candidate or using university money to do so.
Section 1 of Public Act 31 of 2012 states: “It is the policy of this state that a public body shall maintain strict neutrality in each election and that a public body or a person acting on behalf of a public body shall not attempt to influence the outcome of an election held in the state.”
The law effected this summer renders RSOs limited in their political activity during election season.
According to Section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, “A public body or a person acting for a public body shall not use or authorize the use of funds, personnel, office space, computer hardware or software, property, stationery, postage, vehicles, equipment, supplies, or other public resources to make a contribution or expenditure or provide volunteer personal services [to a candidate or ballot proposal]…”
Essentially, student organizations cannot provide materials, services or facilities of ascertainable monetary value in support of or opposition to a candidate or ballot question.
“It’s not the promotion of political views [that is prohibited] because we discuss all kinds of political views and ideas,” Dean of Students Bart Merkle said. “It’s the promotion of particular candidates for particular offices or things like that where it’s real political advocacy as opposed to the free sharing of ideas and talking about issues and ideas.”
Aaron Haight, assistant director of Student Life, said free-thinking is encouraged, but open endorsement is not, as student organizations operate under public funding.
“[RSOs] can promote the platforms of their party, so ‘here’s what it means to be a Democrat and what we believe in,’ but they would not be able to say, ‘Vote for Obama,’” Haight said.
University Counsel Thomas Butcher told RSOs in a memo that they are allowed to host non-partisan events to encourage voter registration, as well as to invite political candidates to speak at regular meetings, provided no fundraising occurs.
“[C]andidates and political campaigns often want to visit the campus and engage the university community and state law allows it,” Butcher said. “However, candidates and ballot question committees must follow university policies and procedures for rental of facilities and they may not engage in fundraising on campus. This is to ensure that all sides are given the opportunity for equal access and avoid the misperception that an on-campus, campaign-related event indicates university support or endorsement.”
If an organization looks to host an event or rally in opposition or support of a candidate or ballot proposal, it must rent space on campus and adhere to university rental policies. The rental of space is one of the biggest changes for RSOs, which are typically allowed to assemble for free at the university.
RSOs can also co-sponsor campus-wide debates for candidates or proposals, but first require the approval of the director of Student Life.
“University resources can be used to educate members of the university community provided that the event is coordinated to assure equal access,” Butcher said.
Haight said students, as individuals, can reserve the free speech zones on campus at the clock tower and Transformational Link to actively campaign and distribute literature.
While student organizations are now limited in their political activity, individuals on campus are not. In fact, they are encouraged to speak their piece in the spirit of academia.
“The university is a marketplace of ideas and we want people talking and thinking and even arguing and disagreeing,” Merkle said. “I mean, that’s a part of what the academy is all about. And we want people to be civically engaged.”
According to the Michigan Legislative Website, further amendments to the act definitions will take effect December 2012. For more information about the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, visit legislature.mi.gov and enter the keywords in the MCL search bar.