After tutoring students at Dayton, Ohio’s Sinclair Community College (SCC) who struggled to afford food, Forest Wilson recently ran for president of the student senate on a platform premised on, among other things, allowing SCC students to use food stamps (EBT or SNAP funds) on campus. The results of the election are pending, but with SCC’s campus dining services operated pursuant to a contract with Aramark, a corporation which generates billions of dollars in revenue each year, one thing was for sure: This story had all the makings of a David vs. Goliath fight.
Sure enough, Wilson found resistance, including from administrators who threatened to override the election because Wilson violated an unwritten “protocol” by talking about his food stamps idea. This, despite Wilson being far from alone on his food stamp quest: Student governments at other institutions have launched similar efforts and found support from their campus administrators. SCC now says that the responsible administrators will apologize to Wilson.
From the outset, Wilson’s efforts to communicate this central message of his campaign were repeatedly frustrated by SCC administrators. When each of the candidates was allowed to record a campaign video to be placed on SCC’s website, Wilson’s discussion of the EBT issue was edited out of his video before SCC administrators uploaded it to Facebook. He was, however, able to get his message out through the student newspaper, where he complained about administrators’ resistance to his efforts.
But Wilson wasn’t going to wait for the election results. He emailed the president of SCC’s staff senate — similar to a faculty’s governing body, or the student senate — and accurately identified himself “as a member of the student senate” who wanted to share his idea to see if he could enlist the staff senate’s support. Wilson received a response from Sam McConnell, the current president of the staff senate. McConnell told Wilson that it was “always nice to hear from a student and we welcome fresh ideas” and encouraged Wilson to work with administrators in the Student and Community Engagement office on developing the idea.
On Feb. 23, Wilson met with two administrators from that office, AJ Owen and Matt Massie. In a recording of the conversation shared with FIRE, part of which was uploaded to YouTube, Massie conveyed to Wilson that his efforts risked undermining those of SCC administrators, and that he would prefer to “see a student get behind something that maybe we’re already working on … and support that[.]” Massie expressed concern that students “shouldn’t see the behind the scenes stuff” like “contracts with outside vendors [and] relationships with third party entities.” (These contracts and relationships can almost certainly be acquired by any enterprising student journalist, or anyone else, through Ohio’s Public Records Act.) While Massie and Owen purported to sympathize with Wilson’s views, Owen informed Wilson that “food stamps just aren’t going to be accepted.”
While Massie and Owen asserted that Owen’s goals were unattainable, they also claimed that his action, in truthfully identifying himself as a member of the student senate seeking to explore whether the cafeteria could accept food stamps, violated an unwritten “protocol” against representing himself as a senator. This, they said, meant Wilson was “representing the college” and unilaterally decided that Wilson could not be president, even if he were elected. Nor would they permit him to become vice president, a position Wilson had not sought. Instead, Owen made Wilson an “offer”: He could assume the role of secretary, another position he did not seek.
All of this is absurd. Student governments are, generally speaking, autonomous bodies conducting government business, including allocating funds, resolving disputes, and advocating for changes in policy. While university administrators are free to encourage student leaders to take certain acts (or discourage them from taking others), administrators cannot interfere with the lawful acts of a student government, or with its elections, without undermining the body’s legitimacy. SCC, after all, describes the student senate as a forum for student advocacy:
Student Senate is a student advocacy group that serves as the voice of the Sinclair student body. Student Senators who serve on the Student Senate represent and then advocate for changes on campus and solutions to concerns and/or challenges that are brought to their attention by peers.
Moreover, the acts by SCC administrators raised multiple red flags about the institution’s respect for free speech. According to at least one federal appellate court, creating a student government and operating its elections may amount to establishing a public forum subject to the requirements of the First Amendment. If so, any content-based regulation imposed by SCC on that forum must seek to address, at a minimum, a “compelling state interest” and the regulation must be “narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” So while SCC could arguably prohibit students from falsely stating that they were acting on behalf of SCC or one of its governing bodies, it cannot bar a student from truthfully identifying their role in campus governance — which is all that Wilson did. That SCC’s actions were taken pursuant to an unwritten “protocol” both aggravates the absurdity of its administrators’ conduct and undermines any claim that the problem addressed by the protocol is “compelling.”
(Even if a student government were not a public forum, another circuit has held that nullifying a student government election in response to discussion of the election “creates a chilling effect which gives rise to a First Amendment injury.”)
Thankfully, SCC quickly reversed course once an online media outlet, Campus Reform, asked them to comment on the matter, and now says that Owen and Massie will apologize to Wilson. But this is not the first time that SCC has whistled past its obligations under the First Amendment. The college once banned protest signs — a ban that cost it thousands of dollars to settle the resulting lawsuit — and previously banned distribution of “literature” in many areas. If those two incidents were not a wake-up call to SCC to train its administrators on respecting students’ freedom of speech, the threat to manipulate a student government election over an email should be.
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