Stony Brook University hosted a rally on Wednesday in the Staller Center for the campaign of incumbent House Representative Tim Bishop, highlighted by an appearance from President Bill Clinton. However, the night managed to generate a significant controversy as well, centered around a digital flyer circulated through the university’s email system.
A group of Stony Brook students are in the process of filing complaints to the Federal Elections Commission and the IRS, according to a press release from the Stony Brook College Republicans.
On Monday, Oct. 20, Stony Brook Student Life sent out an email through the university’s Listserv, an application used to send an email to many recipients on a certain list, announcing the rally for Bishop and the appearance by Clinton. The College Republicans allege that this is a violation of both university policy and federal election law, claiming that the use of the university’s Listserv indicated favoritism towards the Democratic party and was an illegal contribution to the Bishop campaign.
The university policy in question is P109.4.A.iii.c in the IT section of the Policy Manual. The policy states, “Use of IT Systems in a way that suggests University endorsement of any political candidate or ballot initiative is also prohibited.” The College Republicans claim that the use of the email system to circulate the flyer for the rally was a display of endorsement of Bishop’s campaign.
Members of the College Republicans also claim that another violation centers around Stony Brook’s status as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. According to federal election law, a 501(c)3 organization may only conduct voter education, registration, or other election related events if the event is non-partisan.
The event itself was held by the Stony Brook College Democrats and funded by the New York Democratic State Committee. However, the College Republicans believe the use of the Listserv constituted Stony Brook University engaging in an election event.
“University resources are being used to directly promote a candidate,” Laura Doukas, president of the College Republicans, said in a press release. “It is totally uncalled for and breaks the rules of a 501(c)3 and the university policy manual. Stony Brook students and taxpayers should not be footing the bill for this incredibly divisive event.”
Members of the College Democrats responded to the accusations.
“For us, it seemed like the university was helping us as in any way that they would help any other organization,” Winnie Ye, the media director of the College Democrats, said.
“We are student-funded, we are funded through USG, we are a student organization,” Kevin Gomez, the president of the College Democrats, said. “In our opinion, we are afforded the same entitlements any other student organization is entitled to.
The SUNY policy on use of facilities by non-commercial organizations states, “Student partisan political organizations are not different from any other student organization as to regulations governing recognition, membership, sponsorship and use of facilities. The campus, in permitting such groups to use its facilities, is responsible to see that there is equal opportunity for meeting of the various student groups – either for those groups’ own membership or for students generally.”
Elaine Crosson, Stony Brook University’s vice president for external relations, said that the university took the steps to allow equal opportunity for the College Republicans.
“We called the Zeldin campaign and said, ‘We just don’t want you to hear it on the street, we just want you to know that the student Democratic club had gotten prior approval to have this rally on campus and now we have learned that a special guest at this rally will be the former president,’” Crosson said, adding that they also said, “‘We wanted to remind you that if the student Republican club wants to have a rally on campus that we would accommodate them, even though it’s close to the election, obviously we would work with them to accommodate them.’ They thanked us for the call.”
The College Republicans did not receive notice of this offer from either Crosson or the Zeldin campaign, Doukas said.
The ticket for the College Democrat-hosted rally was titled “SBU GOTV[Get Out The Vote] Rally,” which the Republicans interpreted as a sign of Stony Brook’s favoritism of the Democrats, according the College Republicans’ press release.
“The ticket is symbolic of the University’s history of unfairness,” Doukas said. “It’s disturbing that they consider a rally in support of a single candidate to be a ‘get out the vote’ initiative.”
The College Republicans’ press release pointed to an event in which they hosted Congressman Aaron Shock and State Senator Lee Zeldin on Sept. 29 of this year as an example of the university’s bias. The release said that the group was denied both space and a campus email to promote the event. Indeed, the campus Listserv was not used to send an email to Stony Brook students about this event as it was for the Bishop rally.
College Republicans member Dan Elton said that the club had inquired about having the event being added to the Listserv and was told one-weeks notice was necessary for the event to be added. They received notice that Congressman Shock would be on campus within this timeframe, so they submitted this request after this deadline had passed and the request to be added to the Listserv was denied, Elton said.
The event for Zeldin and Shock had to be held on the Academic Mall, according to the group’s press release.
Crosson said the group was denied a meeting because it was the second request for a meeting in a week for the College Republicans, which went against university policy.
The College Republicans believe that the Democrats had received special treatment with the email and claimed that the Democrats had bypassed the week’s notice for an email, as Clinton’s appearance was confirmed less than a week before the event, Doukas said. The type of full-page email that the College Democrats were allotted, which only contained the notice of the Bishop rally, is not an option that the College Republicans are afforded, she said.
“I went through the right channels, I went to Student Activities, I alerted External Relations,” Gomez said. “No where in any instance was it thought to be crossing any lines or breaking any laws.” He confirmed that the College Democrats requested a email through the Listserv.