Michigan college tells student newspaper to cut political endorsement

Administrators at WashtenawCommunity College forced the campus newspaper to pull an editorial endorsementfor three board of trustees candidates in the Nov. 5 election because they saidthe endorsement was a violation of state campaign finance laws.

TheMichigan Campaign Finance Act prohibits public bodies or those acting on thebody’s behalf from using public funds to take a stance in an election. TheStudent Voice receives $100,000 annually from college funds but is alsosupported by its own advertising revenue; therefore, administrators argued thenewspaper would be voicing the opinion of the college by publishing theendorsement, which they say violates the law.

Administrators made theirdecision Oct. 25, one day before the student newspaper, The Voice, wasscheduled to go to the printer.

Colleen Gehoski Steinman, who overseesthe newspaper in an advisory role, discussed the editorial endorsement withadministrators during her regular weekly meeting concerning the newspaper. Shesaid administrators feared the school could be sued for printing theendorsement. Administrators contacted the college’s attorney, Sara Stitt, whotold Steinman that the endorsement violated the campaign financeact.

“Our only concerns at this institution was the campaign financelaws,” said Cal Williams, associate vice president of student services. “Wedidn’t have any questions about who they would endorse. As long as it followslegal procedures, it’s OK.”

Students disagreed with the administrator’sinterpretation of the law, instead they viewed it as censorship. The newspaper’sadviser also expressed concern.

“I was told that public funds cannot beused to endorse political candidates,” Steinman said. “Whether or not it’sappropriate or legal is a question for the lawyers, but I felt that it is a formof censorship.”

Courts around the country have recognized strong freepress protections for college editors, including their right to publisheditorial endorsements. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the FirstAmendment did not allow the University of Virginia to use funding as ajustification for prohibiting religious or political viewpoints in studentpublications.

This was the Voice’s first attempt to run apolitical endorsement, Steinman said. Staff members of the Voiceinterviewed candidates and researched political literature before making anyendorsement decisions, she said.

“I thought it was a great experience forthe students 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.

SPLC View: School officials and lawyersblew this one — and the student editors at WCC paid a big price. Many– if not all – states have campaign finance laws that restrictgovernment officials from using public funds to endorse political candidates orissues. Such laws make sense. Interpreting such laws to cover a student-editednewspaper does not. As is usually the case with student newspapers at publiccolleges, WCC provides a lump sum of money to the Voice; it does notfund a particular political endorsement. Student editors — not college orother government officials — make the decision about whether and whoor what to endorse. There’s a big difference. Here, college officials seem tohave simply glossed over that fact, resulting in what was almost certainly anact of illegal censorship.