Balancing free speech and fairness

By October 20, 2006

When Lafayette College President Daniel Weiss nixed a visit by Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann this week, he got caught in a maelstrom of complaints that he was smothering free speech.

For Weiss, it was a matter of protecting the Easton school’s status as a nonprofit entity that, under federal guidelines, must remain impartial in politics.

But other local colleges don’t see visits by political candidates that way. Gov. Ed Rendell, Swann’s Democratic opponent, will be at Kutztown and Lehigh universities next week for what students at both schools described as rallies.

Rendell’s campaign contacted the College Democrats at Kutztown and Lehigh and asked them to organize events, according to student leaders at those schools. Swann’s campaign contacted the College Republicans at Lafayette, said sophomore Sara Walter, the group’s president.

Weiss said he followed recommendations from Lafayette’s attorneys and financial advisers to keep all political appearances nonpartisan: If Swann were invited, Rendell had to be invited, too.

”I made a judgment based on what I thought was the best interest of the college,” Weiss said. ”Our nonprofit status obligates us not to use our resources in support of a political candidate.”

But maintaining a school’s nonprofit status does not require stopping student groups from bringing political candidates to campus, said Greg Lukianoff, president of the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, based in Philadelphia.

”A university can’t endorse a candidate, but students can endorse whomever they want,” Lukianoff said. ”The whole point of college is that you can be as political as you want. It’s crazy to expect the College Republicans to invite the Democratic candidate, and vice versa.”

The American Council on Education, the largest coordinating body of colleges and universities, recommends schools provide opportunities for all legally qualified candidates to speak at campus events.

The council says speeches and question-and-answer sessions are all right, but cautions against campaign rallies or events.

Weiss said he followed those guidelines, as well as the recommendations of Lafayette’s legal and financial advisers, when he told the College Republicans they had to move their event off campus.

Other schools in the Lehigh Valley area have not required students to invite the other candidate. President Bush chose Kutztown University for a campaign stop before the 2004 election, but Democratic candidate John Kerry did not.

On Monday, Kutztown’s College Democrats will host Rendell for what senior Matt Drake described as a ”rally and question-and-answer session.”

”No one told us to invite Lynn Swann,” said Drake, the student group’s president.

Student organizations at Kutztown are not allowed to use student government money to finance political events, but otherwise freedom of speech reigns, university spokesman Matt Santos said. Using school facilities does not count as financial support, he said.

Adam DeLuca, president of Kutztown’s College Republicans, said he was invited to the Rendell event by the College Democrats. ”We are glad someone is having him. We think it’s a great way to foster debate and politics on campus,” he said.

Rendell also is scheduled to appear at ”a forum and rally” at Lehigh University on Tuesday, said senior Olivier Lewis, president of Lehigh’s College Democrats.

Lehigh’s policy on guest speakers allows student organizations to choose them, but requires an opportunity for questions and statements of opposing viewpoints.

Political events are not foreign to Lafayette either. The college had then-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a 15th District Republican, on campus a month before the 2002 election. The Lafayette student newspaper quoted then-President Arthur Rothkopf as saying, ”When Lafayette College has had needs, [Toomey] has been helpful to us.”

Swann’s camp has been citing a more recent example. Rendell was supposed to meet with Lehigh Valley mayors on Oct. 5 to discuss state grant programs at the Williams Visual Arts Building, a Lafayette building in the Bushkill Creek Corridor. The corridor got a $9 million state grant.

Weiss wasn’t able to attend — neither was Rendell, it turned out — but Weiss said he only learned afterward that Rendell’s supporters posted re-election signs on a bus outside the building.

Weiss said he never saw a Sept. 29 news release from the office of Easton Mayor Phil Mitman, a Republican, asking Rendell supporters to show up outside the Williams building with balloons and ”make ‘hoop-la’ for him.”

”Had I known that was their intention, we would have explained that campaigning was not allowed,” Weiss said.

He said he wasn’t aware of the Wednesday event with Swann until Monday. Given more time, it could have been possible to bring Rendell to campus the same night or at least to offer the governor that opportunity, Weiss said.

Dave Myers, president of the Lafayette College Democrats, said his group had not planned to invite Rendell and doesn’t see an opportunity to host him before the Nov. 7 election. ”Had the Rendell campaign wanted to bring him to campus, we certainly would have done everything in our power to facilitate his visit,” the senior said.

Walter, of the Lafayette College Republicans, said college administrators had more notice than that. She first tried to reserve a room for the Swann event on Oct. 5, but wasn’t told that her request was denied until 48 hours before Swann’s scheduled conference call.

”We were probably asleep at the switch,” Weiss said. ”Our communication was off, and the request didn’t get to me until too late. We just didn’t have the time to make it happen.”

Instead, Swann appeared Wednesday at the Pomfret Club on S. Fourth Street for a conference call with College Republican chapters across the state. About 40 students participated in the ”pep talk” and question-and-answer session, Walter said.

”Canceling this event was a violation of our student handbook,” said Walter, quoting a passage that allows students to ”support causes by orderly means” and student organizations to ”invite speakers of their own choosing.”

”We’re upset,” she said. ”We’re going to keep pursuing this.”

Walter said she wants Lafayette to develop a clear policy on political events, ”so this kind of thing never happens again.”

Weiss agreed clear ground rules are needed. He said he told the student Republicans to invite Swann back, no Rendell counter-appearance necessary.

”I regret that this happened,” Weiss said. ”I’m sorry for the students whose aspirations and ambitions were entirely appropriate.”

But the debate stirred by the controversy — that, he welcomes.

Schools: Lafayette College