SAO rules frustrate political groups
Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, November 15, 2007
The Students for Barack Obama Web site lists a Notre Dame chapter, but no Students for Barack Obama organization exists at Notre Dame – at least not officially.
Last spring, junior Molly Slavin signed up on the Obama Web site with the intention of starting a grassroots campaign at Notre Dame. She received a packet in the mail from the site last May. It included flyers to post around campus in support of the U.S. senator from Illinois’ campaign for president.
But Slavin never put them up.
All advertising must be approved by the Student Activities Office, according to duLac, Notre Dame’s student handbook. Slavin said she went to Student Activities to get the flyers approved, but Student Activities would not approve them because the group was not a University-recognized student organization. She asked how her group could become official but, she said, a Student Activities official told her the office did not allow clubs that supported specific candidates. Slavin did not recall the name of the man she met in the office.
Assistant Vice President of Student Activities Brian Coughlin said he did not meet with Slavin last year and was not sure with whom she spoke.
“I’m sorry if she got that message last year,” Coughlin said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily a policy.”
Every group goes through the same process to become a University-recognized organization, Coughlin said. He said he did not think Student Activities would tell a group before it applied that it wouldn’t be approved.
“It seems like that wouldn’t be an answer that we give,” he said.
Mary Kate Havlik, the student program coordinator in the Student Activities Office, said any group, political or not, must get two approvals – one from Student Activities and one from the Club Coordination Council.
“It comes down to a couple things,” Havlik said. “Student Activities checks to see that it fits within the Catholic character and mission of the University. The Club Coordination Council checks to see, is this a group that is going to be able to be sustained? If we are going to allocate funds to them, will they be using them wisely?”
According to the Student Union Fiscal Policy section of the Undergraduate Student Body Constitution, the Club Coordination Council would not be able to fund a group whose goal it is to support a presidential candidate.
Section 18.4(c) of the constitution reads: “Allocated funds may not be used for the support of candidates, whether federal, state, local or University level.”
The deadline to apply to be an official student organization was Nov. 2. This year, Havlik said, 24 groups applied for club status. She expects the groups to be notified of the outcome of the process by February or March.
Slavin said the Notre Dame chapter of Students for Barack Obama did not and will not apply as an official group because if Obama wins the nomination in August, the College Democrats will support him and her group will no longer be necessary.
Representatives from the Notre Dame chapter of the College Democrats, along with the College Republicans and the College Libertarians, told The Observer that their groups would not support a specific candidate until their respective parties name their presidential ticket.
In the interim, Coughlin said, he suggests Slavin try to register a demonstration. According to duLac, individual students may register for demonstrations with the Associate Vice President for Residence Life, Bill Kirk.
“If they want to do that, they most certainly can register that type of rally,” Coughlin said.
Meeting on campus
When Slavin returned to campus this August, the College Democrats allowed Students for Obama to hold their meetings in the space reserved by the College Democrats on the first floor of LaFortune. The College Democrats had reserved the room for an hour, but the meetings were usually over in half that time, so they allowed Slavin to meet with anyone interested in supporting Obama after the end of the meetings.
Other than holding meetings, Slavin said, she has not been able to do anything else with her group.
“We couldn’t advertise, we couldn’t fundraise, we couldn’t do any of this,” Slavin said. “So basically, the only purpose our group was serving really was to coordinate volunteers to go knock on doors in Iowa.”
Slavin wondered if her group could canvass on campus by knocking on dorm rooms, so she sent Student Activities an e-mail asking if she could. Student Activities said she could not.
Door-to-door solicitation is prohibited by duLac, Havlik said in an e-mail. The only exception she knew of, she said, was for campus student elections.
After fall break, Slavin said, the president of the College Democrats, junior Spencer Howard, told her Student Activities had informed him he had to stop letting Slavin use the Democrats’ meeting space for Students for Obama meetings.
“I guess, as I was told, since they are not a school-sanctioned group, then they can’t meet anywhere on campus, and according to [Student Activities], if they do, they can get ResLifed,” Howard said.
Havlik met with Howard but said she did not tell him the group members would face disciplinary action from the Office of Residence Life and Housing. Havlik, who has worked for Student Activities for three months, said she did not know what the disciplinary process would be if an unapproved group had met, and said she was “not completely familiar with the ResLife policies.”
Associate Vice President for Residence Life Bill Kirk said the University does not permit the creation of groups and organizations on campus without going through the Student Activities process. This process is required for any group on campus, he said.
“If they do fail to follow that process, there could be sanctions,” Kirk said. “But that’s not a typical response, only because I think students aren’t trying to cause problems, they are just trying to form groups.”
According to duLac, students or student groups that want to schedule an activity or use University grounds must first contact Student Activities.
Students for GOP candidates
Sarah Way, the president of the College Republicans, said the group’s leadership does not yet support any specific presidential candidate. She said she has been contacted by students who want to start organizations to support candidates – like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. Way said the College Republicans do not fundraise for any of these groups, but they do make their members aware of volunteer opportunities.
Senior Bob Costa said his campus chapter of Students for Giuliani is still in its early stages. He said he has not applied for club status with Student Activities – and does not plan to – since his group intends to be a short-term political club.
Coughlin said Student Activities has no procedure for expediting the process of recognizing student groups as official student organizations.
“I think the hard part about, saying ‘Hey, this is a unique situation,’ is that every student that is passionate about a club, and feels that their situation is unique, and they would want to fast track it,” he said.
Costa, who has written articles for the Scene section of The Observer, said the group has not done much yet, but said he expects to be more active closer to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
“We haven’t really even started doing much at all,” he said. “We’re just trying to get it off the ground in terms of organization.”
In the coming months, however, Costa said he would like to be able to put up posters around campus to advertise for their meetings.
“Students for Rudy, in the coming months, will do all it can to involve all facets of the student body in learning more about the mayor,” he said.
Costa said he wants his group to work with Student Activities to follow their rules.
“We want to make sure … there is a proper and appropriate way for students who support a campaign to officially advertise,” Costa said. “It’s so important that students are informed going into the 2008 election.”
Havlik said the College Democrats and College Republicans can “talk about the candidates all they want.”
“It is my hope that all students find a way to be active in the political process and take an interest in learning about all candidates prior to voting in the upcoming elections,” she said.
Costa said he hopes to start holding meetings on and off campus in the coming months, but for now, most of the organization occurs through e-mail. Both Costa and Slavin have Facebook groups for their respective candidates.
“We’re trying to mobilize via Internet but there’s really only so much you can do,” Slavin said.