Michael Assad, a tea party activist and Richard Stockton College student, wants the college to give him equal time to present opposing views on the $750 million higher education bond referendum on the November ballot.
Assad, 25, of Absecon, submitted his request after the college this week sent out a mass email linking to the website of a campaign supporting the bond.
The college’s email and Assad’s response demonstrate the delicate position of the state’s public colleges, which would benefit from the bond, but are required by law to remain impartial.
Assad said he had no problem with the email from Stockton, which just invited recipients to learn more about the bond. But, he said, he was surprised when he opened the attached link to the BuilidingOurFutureNJ.com website to see that it actively asked viewers to vote yes on the bond question.
“I feel that it crossed the line between education and political advocacy,” Assad said.
Assad emailed Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., who responded that while the colleges cannot tell people how to vote, they are permitted to educate on political issues. In a copy of the email provided by both the college and Assad, Saatkamp thanks Assad for “pointing out that we could be clearer about the fact that we are linking you to a source for more information and we will do so going forward.”
Saatkamp said in the email “we very specifically ask you to learn about the statewide ballot question by providing you some basic information and then pointing you to a resource that can give you more detailed information. It is your personal decision whether you vote for or against the ballot question.”
Peter Tober, executive director of the N.J. State Ethics Commission said he could not say without a formal complaint and investigation whether the single Stockton email would be considered a violation of the state ethics laws. But, he said, Assad presented a fair concern.
“It is a fair point to question if the email only linked to one side of the issue,” he said. “Technically the (linked) web site is political activity and folks can’t be using state resources to do political activity.”
On Friday Assad received an email from Saatkamp encouraging him to take advantage of the option students have to distribute information in the Campus Center. Assad said he does not believe that provides him the same access as the global email sent by Stockton, and he provided a copy of a complaint he said he would file with the State Ethics Commission.
“I’m not denying there are good things about the bond,” he said. “I just want the opportunity for alternative points of view about the costs. I just want Stockton to give equal time to make sure people get both sides.”
A member of the Absecon Board of Education, Assad also challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo in the June Republican primary.
Almost all of the state’s two and four-year colleges signed on in support of the Building Our Future campaign, led by former Gov. Thomas Kean, which will lobby to pass the referendum. Tober said even that support might be questionable. He said colleges can lend support to an issue, such as when officials testify on bills at state hearings. But, he said, advocating for the bond referendum itself could be viewed more like endorsing a political candidate.
Many of the state colleges have planned some type of activity to raise awareness of the bond.
The kickoff for the Building Our Future campaign was held Monday at Rutgers University. Montclair State University has posted the Building Our Future web site on its home page.
Rowan University has planned a mass email in the next week or so, spokesman Joe Cardona said. Atlantic Cape Community College sent an email to employees about how the bond would benefit Atlantic Cape, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Corbalis.
Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the N.J. Election Law Enforcement Commission said they would have no jurisdiction over the content of the emails or other materials. But, he said, if the colleges were spending more than $1,200 to produce material or provide in-kind support for the campaign to pass the bond, they could be required to file a financial report with ELEC.
Daniel Hurley, director of State Relations and Policy Analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said there is some gray area in how colleges can participate in a bond discussion, but they cannot come out and just ask residents to vote yes.
“It’s just human nature for them to have a vested interest in this,” he said. But, he said, he would expect there to be avenues for discussion about the cost of the bond and its impact on state finances.
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