With the November election approaching, many University faculty
and administrators may choose to donate to or publicly endorse
presidential candidates or petition drives like the Michigan Civil
Rights Initiative, which would ban the race-conscious University
admissions.

But under Michigan law, certain support for and opposition to
political campaigns or ballot initiatives in the name of the
University can be monitored, restricted and punished if knowingly
ignored.

With a few notable exceptions, Section 57 of the Michigan
Campaign Finance Act prohibits public bodies and anyone acting for
a public body from using state resources to influence a political
campaign.

In response to growing inquiry about the type and amount of
support University members and affiliates are allowed to show
during this year’s election season, the administration has
sent out information laying out guidelines for appropriate behavior
for campaigning.

As a misdemeanor, the harshest punishment for an individual
knowingly disobeying Section 57 is a $1,000 fine and one year in
prison. Groups violating the law can be fined up to $20,000 or the
amount of an improper contribution or expenditure.

No one in the University has ever been formally charged with
violating the finance act, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson
said.

But the law does not apply to all the actions of a person with
ties to the University. As a private citizen, an affiliate may
donate money, write letters, or make phone calls to support or
oppose a political campaign or ballot initiative. However,
students, faculty or staff members are not allowed to do these
things on behalf of the University or using University
resources.

Under Michigan law, activities such as mass mailing using
University stationary and postage or using other resources such as
telephones, computers and copy machines for political purposes are
illegal.

University groups are allowed to hold conferences, review panel
or public debates or sponsor guest speakers concerning political
movements, as long as proponents and opponents have equal access to
such events.

Student organizations such as the College Democrats do not use
their University-provided funds toward campaigning for any
candidates, said LSA junior Jenny Nathan, chair of the College
Democrats. The money it receives goes toward the group’s
operating costs and the distribution of factual information.
Funding for campaigning comes from fundraising and private
donation, she added.

In 2000, the Michigan Student Assembly hosted a nationally
televised MTV “Choose or Lose” forum. Although
then-Vice President Al Gore was the only candidate to attend the
forum, Peterson said the event did not violate state law because
all presidential candidates were invited and given the opportunity
to participate.

Another exclusion to the law is that elected or appointed public
officials who have policy-making responsibilities may publicly
express their views.

Because University President Mary Sue Coleman falls under this
exemption, she “may state her views on campaign-related
issues in her official capacity in ways that most members of the
University community cannot,” the document said.

Therefore, it was legal for her to co-publish editorial pieces
with Michigan State University President Peter McPherson about the
ballot proposal to redirect tobacco settlement funds. The letter
ran in The Detroit Free Press on Oct. 18, 2002.

One other exception to the law is the dissemination of
information and commentary by University media in the regular
course of broadcasting or publication. This media include
broadcasting stations, newspapers and magazines.

The information on campaign and election guidelines was sent out
from University Provost Paul Courant, University General Counsel
Marvin Krislov and Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia
Wilbanks to deans, directors and chairs of departments at the
University.

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