Colorado county clerk reverses decision to remove student newspapers featuring election coverage

COLORADO — A county clerk in Larimer County has reversed her actions to remove Colorado State University’s student newspaper with front page coverage of a campaign within 100 feet of a drop-off ballot box on campus.

Angela Myers, the county clerk and recorder, told staff members of The Rocky Mountain Collegian on Tuesday morning to move issues of the paper with a U.S. Senate candidate’s photo from the rack closest to a drop-off ballot box because it violated state electioneering laws.

Myers changed her position after the newspaper’s attorney sent her a cease and desist letter, and after speaking with the Colorado secretary of state.

“While the general consensus is that that statute is unclear, and the secretary of state’s office made it very clear to me that they did not disagree with the position that I had taken, I did decide that because it is unclear I was willing to reverse that decision for now in hopes that the law would be made more clear in the future,” she said.

Myers had told The Collegian the front page photo of Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) violates the state’s electioneering law, which prohibits materials “campaigning for or against any candidate and/or ballot issue that is on the ballot” within 100 feet of the ballot drop-off box. The box is located on the third floor of the Lory Student Center and the copies of The Collegian were on the first floor.

“It was really quite obvious that it needed to move outside the 100 foot limit,” Myers said. “When you walk in and without even going near that newspaper you see a candidate’s picture very boldly within the 100 foot limit, that to me is just something that we just don’t typically allow, so we’re very careful about it.”

But Kate Winkle, The Collegian’s editor-in-chief, said the issue contained coverage of Udall’s visit to campus, a newsworthy event, and was not not material campaigning for the candidate.

“We’re in no way championing a candidate or really promoting that candidate,” she said. “We’re talking about something that happened on campus that’s relevant to students, it had a good photo and it was covered.”

Winkle said she believes Myers saw their front page photo and interpreted a violation of electioneering to be “anything to do with a candidate or election issue that is prominent.”

That morning, Winkle said Myers directed Lance Wright, CSU’s director of campus activities, to move about 150 issues of The Collegian from the rack within 100 feet of the ballot drop-off to another entrance of the student center. At the initial location, The Denver Post ran a story about Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running for reelection, but it appeared below the fold, which Myers claims did not violate the law because it was not visible from the stands, said Neill Woelk, newsroom adviser to The Collegian.

“From an adviser’s standpoint, I cannot see how you could interpret coverage of a news event as electioneering,” he said. “It’s almost impossible for me to fathom that the coverage of a news event, the appearance of a U.S. Senator on campus and running his picture on the front page of the paper, would be considered electioneering.”

Steve Zansberg, an attorney with Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, which represents The Collegian, sent a letter to Myers on Tuesday afternoon dismissing her interpretation of the state’s electioneering laws. In the letter, he wrote that “news coverage plainly is not ‘campaigning for or against any candidate’ or ballot initiative.”

“The unconstitutionally overbroad reading of the applicable statute is even more self-evident when the ‘polling location’ in question is merely a drop-off point for ballots that have already been filled in and voted by the citizens who are visiting that location merely to deposit their already-voted ballots,” Zansberg wrote.

Woelk said this is the first year Colorado has used mail-in ballots.

On Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama will visit CSU to campaign for Udall, who is running against U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO). Winkle said Myers initially told her she would prefer any front page coverage of that event not to appear on the front page within the 100-foot radius.

“We don’t want to break the law as she’s interpreted it, but we certainly don’t believe that it is the correct interpretation,” Winkle said, “and it’s kind of violating the First Amendment, the freedom of the press and our ability to do our job and report on whatever happens around campus or around town.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.