State senators aim to protect student voices

Months after Associated Students of Oregon State University were unable to take a unified, public stance on Measure 105, a new Oregon State Senate resolution aims to give student governments greater freedom of speech.

Senate Bill 731, created in January, retains many aspects of the current law such as disallowing student governments to take a public stance against political candidates. However, it would specifically allow them to take positions on initiatives and ballot measures – actions that do not use student fees. 

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 elections, a proposed joint resolution would have allowed ASOSU to release a statement in opposition to Ballot Measure 105, an initiative to repeal Oregon’s sanctuary state status. Under this law, state agencies are limited in what resources they can use to apprehend people whose only violation is being an illegal immigrant. 

Students with their name on the resolution were informed that the Office of General Counsel advised against moving forward with it. They were told the consequences could include civil lawsuits and a $1000 fine, and the university would not defend them.

Kylie Boenisch, ASOSU vice president-elect and senator, became aware of the resolution a few days before it was set to be voted on. She learned about the potential legal issues hours before the meeting.

“I had to decide whether it was more important for me to continue my sponsorship of the resolution, or follow what I was being advised to do to avoid potentially serious, personal legal repercussions,” Boenisch said.

Faced with this choice, Boenisch removed her name from the resolution.

“That senate meeting was probably one of the hardest ones I’ve ever attended. We had a lot of folks who were there and really wanted to see the resolution introduced,” Boenisch said. “They still came to the meeting even though it wasn’t being introduced, and that was one of the most difficult parts because Measure 105 had the potential to impact the well-being of students at OSU.” 

Aaron Satyanarayana, a second-year ASOSU representative, agreed to cosponsor this resolution. According to Satyanarayana, it was unclear whether or not the resolution was legal. 

“The reason why the resolution didn’t even make it to the floor was because there were a lot of concerns and pressure, and in all honesty a lot of confusion on whether the act of a student government taking a stance on a political position is legal or not,” Satyanarayana said.

After every student sponsor removed their name from the resolution due to fear of legal action, Tabitha Pitzer, ASOSU judicial council vice chair and Here To Stay member, a student organization supporting undocumented students, contacted a friend who works for Oregon Senator Sara Gelser.

“Sen. Gelser’s office agreed to help us reduce legal ambiguity by potentially seeking a legislative fix during the 2019 legislative session,” Pitzer said via email.

According to this bill, the ASOSU resolution to speak against Measure 105 would have been legal, as it is non-partisan and not connected to a particular politician. 

According to Pitzer, ASOSU’s joint resolution was submitted on behalf of Here to Stay.

As a publicly-funded institution, OSU’s student government by Oregon law cannot promote or oppose political candidates or ballot measures. However, ASOSU may take a stance on legislation and speak on politics.       

Adding to the confusion, Western Oregon University’s student government publicly recommended voting no on Measure 105, becoming the first student government in Oregon to take a position on ballot measures. They faced no consequences.      

According to ASOSU General Counsel Rebecca Gose, advising on these potential legal issues was “very difficult” as she knew how important they were to ASOSU. She could not say why Western Oregon University faced no repercussions, as she only advises ASOSU.

“I can’t speak to whether Western’s student government violated the law, or if they did, why Western Oregon University did not impose student conduct action or why the secretary of state did not impose sanctions,” Gose said via email. “Both of those options are possible when this law is violated.”   

According to Gose, the Office of General Counsel is optimistic about the new legislation.

“We are very hopeful that (the bill) will pass in the legislature this year so that our elected student government officials can take these kinds of positions regarding important ballot measures,” Gose said.  

Many student governments have looked to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s 2015 statement on this issue for guidance. Pitzer said many believe this statement gives student governments the right to political endorsement. However, the statement has ambiguity creating what OSU’s Office of General Counsel referred to as a legal gray area. Pitzer said she did not believe students would face any punishment.

“It’s my opinion, and the opinion of many others, that any punishments students would have faced were dependent upon the attorney general saying that students do not have the right to political endorsement but because this is not the opinion of the attorney general, students at OSU would not have faced any negative consequences,” Pitzer said via email. 

Satyanarayana said ASOSU should be able to take non-partisan stances as long as they are backed by fact.

“If we take a calculated and data-driven stance on an issue, like the economic impacts on the student body, why isn’t that allowed?” Satyanarayana said.  

SB 731 is sponsored by Oregon senators Gelser and Michael Dembrow. Most recently, after being introduced in Senate, the resolution has been in the Senate Education Committee. On March 11, a public hearing was held by this committee during which Sienna Kaske, the policy coordinator for Here to Stay, as well as Ryan Maza, assistant director of government relations, testified in favor of SB 731.

On April 8, a work session is scheduled for SB 731 in the Oregon State Capitol. During this session, the contents of the resolution will be decided upon before it moves forward. The bill must pass in the Education committee before it is voted on by the Senate.  

According to Pitzer, if the resolution is passed it will clearly state a right students already have.

“With the passage of SB 731, student governments will likely engage in more dialogue about the world around us and how politics impact our lives,” Pitzer said via email. 

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