Over this past weekend 169 students received an e-mail from Knox faculty member Marilyn Webb concerning the elections for mayor and alderman, which took place on Tuesday, April 7th. According to Dean of the College Larry Breitborde, a misuse of a Knox College Directory will lead to an examination of college policy regarding political campaigning on campus. In a letter to the faculty and student body, Breitborde said, “While many of these student e-mail addresses were obtained from voter registration sign-ups, the College Directory was used to find, to cross-check and to correct at least some addresses.” According to Webb, who ran for mayor, the e-mail was a “non-partisan informational e-mail about all the candidates,” and she argued that her message was not a part of her campaign. The letter she sent out detailed information on where and when the vote would take place, where to find information about the candidates online, and the time and place of two mayoral debates.
“It’s a difference of interpretation,” said Breitborde. “When a ‘get-out-the-vote’ e-mail is sent out, people look at what’s inside the message and who sent it. I don’t disagree that students should be informed of opportunities to take part in the local political process…the e-mail simply should have come from someone else.”
The issue of Webb’s e-mail poses a twofold problem for the college. One is the issue of whether the message is officially “campaigning” on campus, which, at worst, could put the college’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy or cause the college to be fined. Secondly, the use of a College Directory to procure student contact information is a violation of student privacy.
To contact the students registered to vote in Galesburg, Webb got a list of registered voters from the Galesburg Elections Office, a public document anyone can obtain. On this list, Knox students who were registered to vote were easily identifiable by the Knox building addresses placed next to their names. Webb went through the list, found the Knox addresses and applied the basic formula of the first letter of the students’ first names and seven letters of their last names to come up with e-mail addresses. It was only after the fact that she used a directory to check and make sure that she had the e-mail addresses correct, in case of exceptions to the e-mail formula.
“She used institutional resources that weren’t available to other candidates,” said Breitborde. “The problem isn’t whether the content of her e-mail is partisan or non-partisan…I feel that the source itself is influential in a partisan manner. We want to promote civic engagement at Knox, but we need to fulfill our educational needs without crossing the partisan line. It’s a point we disagree on, but [the administration] has the final say in what is and is not partisan because we’re the ones that could be put at risk.”
Breitborde was quick to point out that Webb was very aware of the fine line she needed to walk as both a candidate and member of the Knox faculty. “She was very careful to do the right thing,” he said. Though the college mandated that the directory no longer be used by political candidates to reference student information, Webb is not being officially reprimanded by the college.
To educate himself on the subject of college employees running for positions in local government, Breitborde gathered information both from Webb and through his own research, consulting case studies, legal opinions and pro-bono council in the form of Anne Taylor.
“This was a tricky year,” said Breitborde. “We had a faculty member running, the spouse of a faculty member, an alum and the spouse of an alum running. We need a more robust policy to help us deal with how fulfill our educational mission legally, as in not endangering our tax exemption.”
Right now, the Knox College policies governing involvement in political campaigning closely mirrors what federal law states, which is that the college may not engage in partisan politics and remain a tax-exempt institution. This means that the college must treat all candidates equally in terms of how they allow them to present themselves to the campus.
“The senior staff made the decision that candidates would only be allowed to campaign on campus at college sponsored venues, such as the debate held in Kresge,” said Breitborde. “Despite that, I’ve received three reports of students being contacted by e-mail despite having never given out their information. In addition, two college employees who are neither registered to vote in Galesburg nor live in Galesburg itself received campaign information in their mail. While the college doesn’t condone this misuse and leaking of information, there’s not a lot we can do to stop it. No one has come forth to say ‘So-and-so gave a directory to candidate X,’ and much of our contact information is freely available online as a resource to faculty, current and prospective students and alumni.”
It is Breitborde’s intention to revisit the policies governing campaigning next fall, during a non-election year where time isn’t as much of a factor. “We need a more clearly defined policy for how to handle politics on campus,” said Breitborde. “At the very least we need to put the ‘for Knox College use only’ disclaimer back in the directory. It’s easy to see how someone could mistake it for a public document the way it’s currently printed.”