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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

Newsletter

    RE: USG Campaign Finance Reform Now!

    Dear Editor,

    In a recent letter to the editor entitled, ‘USG Campaign Finance Reform Now!’ Senate Recording Secretary Esam Al-Shareffi mischaracterized current Undergraduate Student Government law in his support of a bill entitled the ‘Campaign Finance Reform Act,’ which was recently halted in the Elections and Referenda Committee of the USG Senate. In doing so, he misled readers into believing that student activity fee funds may be used for direct campaign donations to candidates, and that current law gives political clubs and organizations an unfair advantage in the USG electoral process. Despite being repeatedly informed on the Senate floor of what current law actually states, Al-Shareffi never lets the facts get in the way of his arguments.

    In his letter published in the Mar. 1 issue of ‘The Statesman,’ he stated, ‘[O]rganizations like the College Republicans have a distinct unfair advantage over all other clubs and organizations because of their ability to financially support candidates’hellip;’ This however, is an incorrect interpretation of the Article XIX, Section 6 of the ‘Elections Board Bylaws,’ which states in part that ‘[n]o funds appropriated by the USG on behalf of any club or organization may be utilized for the purpose of making campaign donations to candidates…’ With this clear prohibition, no club, including the College Republicans, may make direct campaign donations to candidates by cutting checks whatsoever under any circumstances. Additionally, since this was already the case under law, the ‘Campaign Finance Reform Act,’ which sought in part to prohibit financial support to candidates from student activity fee funds, was in fact a redundancy and unnecessary to reiterate in the form of a bill.

    Next, the ‘Campaign Finance Reform Act’ articulated a broad restriction on material support of candidates and campaigns in Section 3(a): ‘No part of the Undergraduate Student Activity Fee, from any source except as disbursed by the Elections Board, shall be used to provide ‘hellip; material support to any candidate or campaign in elections of the Undergraduate Student Government.’ This restriction would, despite the claims of the bill’s author, prohibit not only political clubs, but also media organizations from supporting candidates, making endorsements, or providing free advertising to any candidate – which is in fact material support – since campus newspapers such as ‘The Statesman,’ ‘The Press,’ or ‘The Patriot’ are all funded by the student activity fee.

    This proposal also conflicts with the second part of Article XIX, Section 6 of the ‘Elections Board Bylaws,’ which states, ‘[N]or shall any funds appropriated by the USG on behalf of a club or organization be used for campaign fliering or printing publications pertaining to the Elections unless supporting candidates for office, making candidate endorsements, or reporting on the outcome of the Elections is a specifically enumerated or implied purpose of the club or organization recognized.’

    This protection and prohibition allows political and media clubs and organizations to carry out their missions and to influence the outcome of elections here on campus, and disallowed other clubs from doing so that do not have a political or media purpose, respectively. So, for example, a campus newspaper or political club may use student activity fee funds to print endorsements of candidates, but an athletic club could not, because the athletic club does not exist for political or media purposes.

    Current law as articulated in the ‘Elections Board Bylaws’ and the USG Constitution protects the freedom of speech and of the press of political and media clubs and organizations. They allow clubs and organizations that have a distinct political or media mission to do precisely what the ‘Campaign Finance Reform Act’ seeks to prohibit, which is to print fliers, advertisements, or publications which seek to influence the outcome of elections.

    As it relates to the Constitution, Article II, Section 3.C. states that ‘[n]o Club, Organization, or entity recognized by the Undergraduate Student Government and guaranteed the right to funding shall be denied the right to use its funding to carry out its mission, goals, and activities.’ This means that clubs, when they are funded by the USG, cannot be prohibited by the USG from carrying out their missions as articulated in their club constitutions. So, even if the ‘Campaign Finance Reform Act’ were enacted into law, it would be unconstitutional since it would violate the aforementioned section of the USG Constitution. And, even if the Act made exception for media clubs and organizations, but not for political clubs, it would be a case of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and a violation of free speech since it would seek to limit the speech of partisan groups on the basis that they are partisan.

    The requirements of viewpoint neutrality, articulated in US Supreme Court decisions, the SUNY Chancellor’s Guidelines, USG Constitution, and USG law, do not allow the USG to choose to fund some types of political speech, but not others. Just because a student-funded newspaper may be open to all candidates to write articles, or to utilize free advertising, does not offer it a wider First Amendment protection than partisan political clubs, since the First Amendment covers all political speech. In fact, it was enacted to specifically protect political speech. It is not the College Republicans’ fault that, for instance, the College Democrats do not seek to utilize USG funding, and nor should the USG be seeking to pass legislation which would prevent political clubs from carrying out their mission on the basis that only one partisan political club takes advantage of USG funding.

    As to the contention that political clubs would have an ‘unfair advantage’ to influence the outcome of elections under current law, what of the media organizations, that can and do print thousands of newspapers with student activity fee funds during election time and make influential candidate endorsements? What is the substantive legal difference between a flyer with a candidate endorsement and a newspaper with a candidate endorsement? How could one be protected under the First Amendment but not the other? Does newsprint possess magical properties that allow media organizations to act politically? It does not, both are in fact protected, there is no substantive legal difference between the two, and there is no reason that media organizations should be allowed to use the student activity fee to act politically and not partisan political clubs that in fact have it right in their mission to support candidates materially.

    In addition to the fact that the ‘Campaign Finance Reform Act’ violated the ‘Elections Board Bylaws,’ it was killed in committee because of all the other aforementioned reasons, and the authors of this legislation should instead propose amendments to the ‘Elections Board Bylaws,’ which the Senate and the Executive Council share a role in amending. But even then, Senators should be aware that attempts to prevent USG-funded clubs from carrying out their missions are unconstitutional and will be challenged in the USG Judiciary if and when they are enacted. Finally, I have brought the Act, the ‘Elections Board Bylaws,’ and the USG Constitution before the USG attorney, and he has confirmed the legal validity of the arguments I have made. So, bring it on.

    Most Sincerely,

    Robert J. Romano

    Robert J. Romano is the current President Pro Tempore of the USG Senate, the current USG Elections Board Advisor, the current Long Island Regional Vice Chairman of the New York College Republican State Committee, Inc., the former President of the SBU College Republicans, and the former Chair of the USG Elections Board.

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