Mich. college tells newspaper to cut political endorsement

MICHIGAN— Administrators at Washtenaw Community College forced the campusnewspaper to pull an editorial endorsement for three board of trusteescandidates in the Nov. 5 election because they said the endorsement was aviolation of state campaign finance laws.The Michigan Campaign FinanceAct requires that no money be used from a state-funded institution to take astance in an election. The Student Voice receives $100,000 annually from collegefunds; therefore, administrators argued the newspaper would be voicing theopinion of the college by publishing the endorsement, which they say violatesthe law.Administrators made their decision Oct. 25, one day before thestudent newspaper, The Voice, was scheduled to go to the printer.Colleen Gehoski Steinman, who oversees the newspaper in an advisory role,discussed the editorial endorsement with administrators during her regularweekly meeting concerning the newspaper. She said administrators feared theschool could be sued for printing the endorsement. Administrators contacted thecollege’s attorney, Sara Stitt, who informed Steinman that the endorsementviolated the campaign finance act.A violation of the Campaign FinanceAct is considered a misdemeanor and could result in a $1,000 fine and/orimprisonment for no more than one year.”Our only concerns at thisinstitution was the campaign finance laws,” said Cal Williams, associate vicepresident of student services. “We didn’t have any questions about who theywould endorse. As long as it follows legal procedures, it’s OK.”Studentsdisagreed with the administrator’s interpretation of the law, instead theyviewed it as censorship. The newspaper’s adviser also expressedconcern.”I was told that public funds cannot be used to endorsepolitical candidates,” Steinman said. “Whether or not it’s appropriate or legalis a question for the lawyers, but I felt that it is a form ofcensorship.”Courts around the country have recognized strong free pressprotections for college editors, including their right to publish editorialendorsements. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment didnot allow the University of Virginia to use funding as a justification forprohibiting religious or political viewpoints in studentpublications.Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press LawCenter, said he does not understand the school’s position.”The collegeprovides a lump sum of money to the student newspaper; it does not fund aparticular political endorsement,” he said. “Student editors — not collegeor other government officials — make the decision about whether andwho or what to endorse. There’s a big difference. Here, college officials seemto have simply glossed over that fact, and this very sad act of censorship wasthe result.”This was the Voice’s first attempt to run a politicalendorsement, Steinman said. Staff members of the Voice interviewedcandidates and researched political literature before making any endorsementdecisions, she said.”I thought it was a great experience for thestudents to go through the process of writing an endorsement,” Steinmansaid.School policy regarding the publication of the student newspaperstates that staff members have the freedom to print any story as long as it’s ingood taste, said Maurice Upthegrove, managing editor. Administratorsinstructed the Voice to revise the editorial endorsement and publish itas a letter to the editor, which they said eliminated the newspaper’s officialendorsement of the candidates.