|Winter 2008-09 - Access
XXX, No. 1 - Page 14
Shining a light on campus politics
© 2009 Student Press Law Center
By Caitlin Wells
This spring, banners and signs will adorn campuses. Students will stand behind tables around campus, handing out fliers and trying to convince passersby that their candidate is the best for the job.
For many, this scene will seem pretty familiar. Students across the nation mobilized in November to get out the vote for the national election, with supporters of both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain plastering campuses with buttons, stickers and signs. But for many students, spring marks another election season: campus elections.
High school and college students will vote for the student leaders to represent and work for them in the coming year. Many schools hold elections for student body presidents, class officers and student legislature positions, and some of these contests can get intense.
For student journalists, covering elections can lead to some interesting questions that can make or break a journalist's coverage.
Public versus Private
Information obtained through student government meetings and records, especially those relating to elections, can be essential to holding student governments accountable. However, student governments may not be aware of open records and meetings laws, and in some cases, might not know these laws apply to them.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the student government Board of Elections closed a meeting to reporters from the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper. The board was discussing whether to fine student candidates for breaking campaign rules, and the university's student code allowed for closed meetings. After contacting open-meetings law experts, the newspaper found that student government bodies in North Carolina are subject to the state's open government statutes, and that the section of the student code cited by the board chairman was in conflict with these laws.
Whether a school is a public or private institution can make a big difference when it comes to open records and open meetings law. According to Adam Goldstein, Student Press Law Center's legal advocate, private school governments are not subject to these laws because they are not public entities. Public schools are considered part of state government, and most school administrators and school boards are subject to state sunshine laws — or open records and open meetings laws. Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition said that students interested in whether their state sunshine laws apply to student governments can look at the language of the law that defines public bodies.
"If it's one that says public bodies are agencies or subagencies of public bodies that have decision-making authority, for example, then I would say it's fairly clear that a student government is covered under that state statute," Davis said.
He said that even if student governments are legally covered by state sunshine laws, they may still refuse to grant access to meetings or records. He recommends a preemptive approach by asking student government officials whether they think they are subject to the sunshine law.
"If you get them on the record saying, 'We're absolutely subject to the sunshine law,' well, you've saved yourself a lot of time and money," Davis said.
Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative said that all student governments should try to follow sunshine laws because those are the rules by which civic governments function.
How much is too much?
A reporter for the campus paper finds pictures of a student presidential candidate on a social networking Web site in which the candidate is holding a marijuana pipe. Can the reporter write about his find?
When personal information is easily accessible from MySpace, Facebook or the campus rumor mill, it can be difficult for student journalists to sift through it and determine what they can — or should -— report.
Most media law experts agree that it is hard to invade a candidate's privacy. James Tidwell, chair of the journalism school at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill., notes that "unless you're peering in keyholes," a reporter can write about almost anything a candidate says or does in public.
"I think that assuming they're doing it in public, that's fair game," said Tidwell. "If you do it in public, in a public situation, you can't complain when somebody says something about it."
One source of personal information that is becoming more and more pertinent to campus elections is social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook. While many college students might consider this private, it is public as soon as it hits the Web.
"Employers are going to look at Facebook pages to see what people are really like," Tidwell said. "You'd think journalists would want to do the same thing."
Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, believes that students who are running for office at public institutions should be prepared to reveal everything about themselves.
"That's your job as the campus press, to point out, 'Look, this guy had a DUI two years ago. Does that show good judgment? Do you want him representing you?'" he said.
Law of the Student Press, a student media law guide published by the SPLC, noted that while some documents, such as court records, are considered public, there are certain documents and information that could be considered sufficiently private to give rise to a privacy lawsuit if publicly disclosed without consent. Grade transcripts, medical records, student evaluations and information from private sources — such as diary entries or personal e-mails — are generally not considered "public records." And, the book cautions, whether information is "newsworthy" can make a difference. Information that has no connection to a public issue might not stand up to legal scrutiny.
Student journalists covering campus elections should watch out for defamation and libel. These are false statements that cause embarrassment or harm to another person's reputation, and may lead to a lawsuit. Tidwell notes the easiest way to avoid a libel suit, especially when reporting on something sensational or when accusing someone of doing something embarrassing or illegal, is to make sure the information is true.
"Obviously, from a libel standpoint, they just have to make sure what they're publishing or airing is accurate," he said.
Another factor when it comes to libel is whether the person is a public figure. A public figure is defined by Law of the Student Press as someone who "voluntarily increased their exposure to the public spotlight by assuming roles of special prominence in the affairs of society" and who has some access to the media to respond to false statements.
Tidwell said that when it comes to student media, "a person running for office could be a public figure and someone in office could be a public official, assuming they put themselves in the limelight concerning controversial issues on the campus."
Public figures have to prove a higher degree of fault in order to prove defamation. Law of the Student Press cautions that it can be difficult to determine exactly who is a public figure, especially when it comes to school officials, and that student journalists should always write as if their subjects are private citizens.
Candidate endorsements and political advertisements can seem like tricky areas. Some professional newspapers choose to endorse candidates for local and national elections, and many allow political advertising, but student journalists may feel uncomfortable. Tidwell said that whether to endorse student candidates is an ethical decision that is up to the editors, but that there are no legal impediments to publishing an endorsement even in a publication that receives public funding.
Eric Roper, editor in chief of the George Washington University Hatchet, said its editorial board has endorsed candidates for student governments for many years and the newspaper hosts a debate. He believes the endorsements benefit the campus by putting the paper's news coverage in context and allowing experienced editors to analyze the practicality of each candidate's platform.
"When you're an average student, it might be helpful to get that sort of synthesis," he said.
One of the arguments against endorsements is that they can make a paper seem biased, but Roper had never heard anyone complain about the Hatchet's endorsements. He explained that the paper goes to great lengths to ensure that the editorial and news sections are completely separate.
"We make it very transparent on the page who's participating in this meeting," he said.
Matt Day, co-editor in chief of the Macalester College Mac Weekly in St. Paul, Minn., said that because Macalester is a smaller college, campus politics are laid back, and the Weekly does not endorse candidates.
"It just doesn't seem like we need to provide that voice," he said.
Tidwell said that he sees no problem with campus media endorsing candidates as long as the endorsements are made early to give the other side a chance to respond.
Goldstein said there is no legal difference between political ads and any other form of advertising.
"Political ads are subject to the same amount of protection and the same amount of deference as anything else in the paper," said Goldstein.
SGA strikes back
Retaliation is a possibility that all student media face, but with emotions running high during elections, student journalists could face uncooperative student representatives and obstacles from students and administrators.
The Messenger at City College of New York faced difficulties in 1998 after a standoff with the college administration. The college had elected a slate of activists to the student government that opposed the administration, and the college president declared the student government elections void and changed the locks on both the student government and the newspaper's offices. She justified these actions by saying that the newspaper had been biased toward the candidates. A lawsuit filed by the student candidates against the president was heard in U.S. District Court in October 2008 and has yet to be decided.
James Tidwell pointed out that trouble can come not only from the administration, but from student candidates that feel the newspaper's election coverage was overly negative or biased. Often, this resentment can take the form of funding cuts.
"Campus politics can certainly get nasty," he said. "And of course, the student media that have to go hat-in-hand to student groups for funding and so forth are obviously asking for trouble."
Newspaper theft can also be a problem. Several thousand copies of the University of Central Arkansas Echo in Conway, Ark., were stolen in September, and editors for the paper believe the copies were stolen because of an article criticizing the student president.
Tidwell added that balanced coverage could prevent these problems.
"It's important to make sure you cover everyone and not give people the excuse to say your coverage is biased," he said