Currently, the Undergraduate Student Government is considering a series of changes to the rules governing student referenda. Among the proposed changes is the creation of a $500 cap on campaign expenditures by groups supporting or opposing a referendum. Following the Divestment Referendum last spring, the Editorial Board argued that USG should reform referendum spending by requiring the disclosure of donations and expenditures by student groups involved in a referendum campaign. The Board believes that the current USG proposal is misguided, and we again urge the USG to require student groups involved in referendum campaigns to disclose donation amounts and expenditures.
USG’s proposal fails to recognize the diverse nature of the parties with a stake in a given referendum. Because the $500 cap for campaign expenditures is applied to the official sponsor and opposition groups for the referendum, there are two possible ways this could work in practice. If USG uses this rule to forbid non-sponsor student groups from participating in referendum campaigns, then it will prevent perspectives other than those articulated by the official groups from being adequately expressed on campus. However, if the spending cap applies only to the officially recognized support and opposition groups, it is easily bypassed when there are multiple groups on each side of the issue. In this scenario, only one group on each side of the issue must register with USG and, consequently, be restricted by the cap. All other groups would be free to spend without restrictions. Due to this loophole, the USG policy has no real impact on campaign spending.
Despite its flaws, USG’s attempt to limit spending is motivated by a legitimate concern. Given Princeton’s recognition as a top education and research institution, it is possible that outside groups could donate large amounts of money to student groups in order to influence referenda relating to national issues. A large influx of outside donations can lead to the appearance of one side having broad support from the student body simply due to a large amount of campaign expenditures. In order to address this issue without unduly harming free and open discourse, USG should require student groups participating in the campaign to disclose donation amounts and expenditures. This would increase transparency and allow students to be fully informed about the amounts being spent by both sides and the size of donations. Students have an interest in knowing how much is being spent to influence their vote on a referendum. While the USG proposal tries to implement a cap that either will stifle discourse or be completely ineffective, this proposal equips students with valuable information that allows them to hold student groups accountable during a referendum campaign.
As we saw last year, referendum campaigns can be incredibly contentious. USG is making a good-faith effort to reform referendum campaign rules in response to feedback from last year’s campaigns. However, this part of their proposal is flawed, and it should be replaced by a system that encourages transparency. By doing this, the integrity of referendum campaigns can be protected without restricting the ability of student groups to participate in campus discourse.
Paul Draper recused himself from the writing of this editorial.
While I too oppose USG’s proposed changes to referendum procedure, I respectfully disagree with the majority’s alternative of requiring student groups to disclose campaign donations and expenditures for two reasons. First, money is a form of speech that should be left unrestricted. Money is intimately related to political speech since it funds activities that promote broader awareness of issues. Yet the majority suggests this is inherently negative, describing what it terms “a legitimate concern” of outside groups donating to referenda campaigns. Insofar as requiring groups to disclose expenditures will create a disincentive for groups to spend money so they can avoid the negative bias to which the Board alludes, this limits campus debate in a pernicious way. Second, debate over referenda should focus on the real issues and not be misdirected by which side spends more money. It would be unfortunate if students were more focused on parsing through donation amounts rather than learning about each side’s arguments. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.
Allison Berger '18
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor and the Editor-in-Chief.