WASHINGTON — The student government at Washington State University is accusing the student-run newspaper of violating election rules by printing two full-page ads in support of a referendum to provide additional funds to the student media office.
Student government representatives filed two election violation allegations earlier this month against the student-run newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, in response to their full-page ads. The full-page ads, which ran March 3 and 4, urged students to vote yes on a referendum that would establish a $4 fee to better fund the university’s student media office. Students voted down the referendum last week.
“For the price of one venti, half-caff, 120 degree, soy, extra foam, hazelnut latte… you could fund student media. Only $4 a semester,” reads the advertisement.
In a statement released March 7, members of the student government argued the advertisements misled students by implying that $4 fee per semester would pay for student media. Representatives argued that students already paid nearly $224,000 to student media through the university’s services and activities fee this financial year. The proposed $4 fee would have brought in an additional $65,000 a semester for student media, according to the statement. The Daily Evergreen also received additional funding from the Office of the President last year and takes in advertising revenue.
The representatives also argue the ads violated a referendum policy that states “any marketing material regarding the referendum shall be reviewed and approved with a 2/3 vote by the ASWSU President, Senate Pro-Tempore, and a representative from the election board.”
“We think it is highly unethical that The Daily Evergreen continues to produce one-sided information on this sensitive issue for their own personal agenda which is to get a “YES” vote on the referendum,” reads the statement.
Hannah Street, editor-in-chief of the Evergreen, who was in attendance when the ASWSU Senate approved the marketing policy for the referendum, said she was unsure and uncomfortable about the clause when it was passed.
“I’m not really sure what any of them were thinking at that time,” Street said.
As for the alleged violations, Street said the ad did not state student media would solely rely on the $4 fee. She said the ad featured a link to a webpage where student editors explain the referendum and point out that student media would continue to primarily rely on service and activities funds.
“These are not legitimate concerns,” Street said. “They are over-reaching in every sense of the word.”
It’s unclear what consequences the paper could face, but student government representatives had previously called for the removal of the referendum on the ballot due to the paper’s violation of the marketing policy. Even though the referendum did not pass, ASWSU President Kyle Geiger said the judicial board will still hold preliminary hearings on the allegations.
In a memo of support sent to Street earlier this month, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote that college student media enjoys strong constitutional protections, including the ability to choose advertising. He cited Pitt News v. Pappert, a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in which the court ruled that a college could not restrict advertisements for alcohol in the student-run newspaper.
LoMonte wrote that punishing the newspaper for not going through the pre-approval process would expose the student government to a legal challenge as well as raise serious free speech concerns. He also argued that the student government is bound by the First Amendment as they are an arm of the state government.
“Since the disagreement directly implicates the newspaper’s choice of wording in an advertisement, it involves a content-based restriction on speech of the sort that has routinely been struck down as unconstitutional,” LoMonte wrote. “To penalize the newspaper, directly or indirectly, for its choice of content in a political advertisement would be unlikely to withstand First Amendment scrutiny.”
ASWSU Senate Pro-Tempore Crystal Swanson had filed an election violation allegation with the university March 3 after the full page ad appeared in that day’s newspaper. Swanson argued student editors violated the referendum policy by not receiving prior approval from student government officials. In response, she argued the referendum should have been removed from the ballot or the newspaper should have issued a clarification or retraction.
After the same ad appeared in the paper the next day, a second election violation allegation was brought against the paper. Geiger, who reported the second violation, said in the filing document that the paper was notified of the first allegation, yet still published the ad without the prior approval of student government officials.
“The Judicial and Election board need to take this string of violations extremely seriously,” Geiger writes, adding that the ballot should have been deemed invalid due to the violations.
In the lead up to a hearing on the violations, the university’s Judicial Board discussed the case at a seemingly unannounced meeting at a campus coffee shop. Student editors published an article last week pointing out that the meeting appeared to violate the state’s open records law, which university student governing bodies are subject to. The open meetings statute requires government boards to post meetings and agendas at least 24 hours in advance.
“I wish I could say I was shocked, but I was not,” Street said of the meeting. “I think I was surprised to see both of their advisers in the photo, because I would like to think they know better.”
The money from the $4 fee would have allowed the Office of Student Media to hire a director of student media and would have funded student staff wages and operating costs to offset declining advertising revenue, Street said. She said the referendum was an attempt to gain sustainable revenue without going through the services and activities committee, which has been hesitant to give large funding increases in the past. Board members often comment on the paper’s content and job performance, she said.
“There was a lot of speculation not rooted in reality,” she said.