I wanted to remind the campus community about state and federal laws related to use of university resources regarding political campaigns. Keep in mind that NMU employees, students and campus groups might be contacted by candidate campaign teams or their surrogates for such things as campus lists, campus space or other campus-related information. ALL politically related requests should be directed to the President’s Office as a way to ensure that our actions as a university do not unintentionally violate any laws. Violating federal and state laws regarding political campaigns can result in large fines for the university. In Michigan, violations can result in fines to the university of up to $20,000 or the amount of the contribution/expenditure, whichever is greater.
To keep from violating state or federal laws, no NMU employee or persons acting on NMU’s behalf should use university resources for any political campaign activities. Examples of resources include (but are not limited to): university letterhead and envelopes; university postage; use of copy machines; use of university telephones; use of your university e-mail; use of the NMU network; use of a university-issued computer; and staff time. One of my biggest concerns is NMU employees using their work e-mail (.nmu.edu accounts) to send out political messages, on and/or off campus. Unfortunately, what may be perceived as informal, personal communication is actually considered university business communication if you’re using the university computer, e-mail account and sending the message over the university network.
You also cannot carry on a political campaign in the name of the university. So, if you write letters to the editor, write an op-ed piece, appear in advertisements, serve as a guest speaker at a debate or on a panel, or make any public statement or appearance related to a political issue or candidate, you must do so as a private citizen, not using your NMU employee title or bringing the university into the public statement. If your university title is needed to make clear your expertise in supporting a position related to a campaign or ballot initiative, your statement or appearance must include a disclaimer that you are not writing/speaking as an official representative of Northern Michigan University.
You also cannot use university resources or the name of the university for any fundraising, event planning or other volunteer work for nonprofit and charitable organizations that you do as a private citizen. Only events or efforts approved by the President’s Office, such as the United Way, qualify as an exception. These are usually campus-wide initiatives.
Please note that neither state nor federal laws in any way restrict the ability of individuals, acting on their own behalf and using their personal time and resources, from fully participating in political activities. The laws do not keep faculty and students from doing scholarly research related to campaign proposals (such as the economic impact of a proposal), nor does it disallow dissemination of these scholarly research results to news organizations, academic journals, or on a university Web site. They also don’t keep people who live in university-owned housing from using their residence to engage in political activities except for political fundraising.
The laws do not stop you, as a private citizen, from donating money to candidates or supporting ballot initiatives, volunteering for a campaign team, organizing or attending political rallies, writing letters to the editor or op-ed pieces, giving speeches or participating in debates and on panels, or writing to elected officials. But by law, NMU employees cannot do any of these on university time. So, if these are activities you will be participating in, they need to be done outside of NMU business hours or you can choose to take annual leave.
The state and federal laws allow for limited participation in election issues by university members if the employee is an elected or appointed public official with policy-making responsibilities (this includes university presidents); he or she is permitted to express personal views on a ballot or campaign initiative. Additionally, university-affiliated media may disseminate news items, debates, interviews and commentary via regular publications or broadcasts. A university’s public facilities may be used for campaign-related events if both sides are given equal access upon request, and university groups (including student groups) can put together conferences, debates, forums on political topics, as long as guest speakers on all sides of an issue have similar opportunities through the same or another university organization.
The American Council of Education has just released an easy-to-use comprehensive set of guidelines on the federal dos and don’ts of political campaign-related activities of and at colleges and universities. I strongly encourage you to thoroughly review these materials. The document does an especially good job of explaining what qualifies as “educational” activities related to campaigns and other political events.
I have been asked about campaign buttons and the answer is two-fold. You can wear political buttons on campus as part of your individual apparel as long as the context in which you are wearing the button does not imply that you are acting on behalf of Northern Michigan University. So, it would be a violation to wear a campaign button while speaking to an external group as an NMU representative because this could imply university endorsement of what your button supports. You also cannot put political buttons, stickers or posters on university property.
That’s a quick review of the laws related to political activity on a university campus. As engaged citizens of our community, I encourage you to be aware of the issues in the upcoming elections, get involved in those that are important to you, and get out and vote. But I also ask you to be aware of how your political activity can impact NMU. Again, please review the ACE materials and remember that if you are approached with political activity requests, direct them to my office. This does not apply to classroom activities, as long as the activities clearly meet the federal and state definition of political process education. However, so that I’m not blindsided by legislators and/or their supporters, I would appreciate knowing about these activities, too, as a courtesy.
Thank you for your concern on this matter.
Les Wong, President