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Political student organizations can post in the daily digest

Joel Goode, Opinion Editor

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Mari Ponder has been organizing non-partisan voting activities in the South Alabama area for a while now. Last Spring, she ran as a delegate during the primary elections. She also founded the now defunct educational student group Students 4 Bernie, which has been replaced with the League of Student Voters.
LoSV meets every Wednesday at 5 p.m. in room 102 of the student center. Their events are regularly advertised in the daily digest, which is a new development for Ponder after a tumultuous experience trying to access that particular platform.


While S4B was active, there was much confusion over the function of the organization on the part of Student Activities and USA’s staff attorneys, mostly due to the name “Bernie”. The campus has 501-3c tax exemption status, which prevents them from opposing or endorsing any particular political candidate.

When S4B first became active, they advertised on the daily digest, USA’s largest platform for student-oriented organizations to broadcast their events. The ad raised warning bells among USA’s staff attorneys.
“They wouldn’t have gotten in trouble because, as a club, we did not endorse Bernie Sanders,” said Ponder. “We wanted to provide information to students about the candidate. It was never about saying ‘Hey, vote for Bernie.’ I’ve never in my life asked anyone to vote for any political candidate, and I’m not about to start now.”


Thanks to the digest, the first S4B meeting had record turnout. However, Ponder realized something was wrong the next time she sent an email to Student Activities asking for advertisement space in the digest.
“They said ‘We are unable to do that at this time,’ Ponder recounted. “I said, ‘What’s up?’ The attorney emailed me back and said ‘No political clubs are going to be able to use the daily digest for a little while.’ She didn’t tell me what it was about.”


Ponder requested more information, but received silence. After a month, she sent out another email.
“I was like, ‘Ok, so what’s going on? Do I need to contact an attorney about my first amendment rights? Why can’t we send out our advertisements in the daily digest?’ She said the school attorneys wanted to talk to me. I got my faculty advisor at the time for that club, and we went.”


“The way they explained what it was that, at the time, USA was a little behind as far as not having a political activity policy on campus,” said Ponder. “We helped them get that.”


The staff attorneys for USA had to go on the internet and Google the political policies of other universities, like Auburn and Alabama. At the time, they explained to Ponder that until a cohesive policy was formed, no political organizations would be able to advertise with the digest.


As of September of 2016, the political policy has been put in place, and politically oriented student organizations, whether they are partisan or nonpartisan, can advertise in the daily digest.

The only significant structure in place is that outright political rallies and endorsement events cannot access facilities such as rooms in the Student Center for free. They must pay a rental fee. Otherwise, political and nonpolitical organizations are both free to advertise in the digest. This ability is enabled by a disclaimer that all politically-oriented organizations must now include. Ponder showed us the version of the disclaimer LoSV drafted on their constitution:


“The University of South Alabama does not oppose or endorse any candidate or political organization in connection with this organization or any other political campaign or election.”
Nevertheless, despite this apparent newfound comfort with political activity, the process through which LoSV gained approval was, in Ponder’s opinion, questionable on the part of USA.
“LoSV had applied to be a new student organization in August,” said Ponder. “They made us rewrite our constitution with little arbitrary changes. It was October before they said the constitution was okay, but we still had to wait to become a registered student organization.”
LoSV did not become an approved student organization until after election day.

LoSV plans to sit in on Mobile city council hearings, which are held every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. on the Government Plaza. Because of the inconvenient time, Ponder plans to have the council members personally come to USA and speak with students.


The next elections are in August, and they will be for Mobile city council seats. Once LoSV brings the council members to campus, students will have the opportunity to meet candidates who will face the chopping block.


“We just want them to come and talk about what they do, with questions,” said Ponder. “One thing I’m interested in is Birmingham made themselves an official welcoming city for immigrants. I wanted to ask the city council how they felt about that, and whether they’d be willing to do that in Mobile.”
“These are people students have an opportunity to vote for,” continued Ponder. “The point of bringing the council members out here is for them to provide information and leave it there.”


“There are so many people out there who engage in name recognition voting,” said Ponder. “They don’t have any idea where candidates actually stand on the issues. That’s what we’re trying to change as a club.”
Students who are interested in participating with the LoSV should keep an eye on the daily digest for upcoming events. Meetings are held every Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. in room 102 of the Student Center.

LoSV has quite a bit planned for the coming semester. February 12 between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., the group will host an excursion to Carmike Cinemas to watch the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated film “Hidden Figures.” It’s a movie about a group of female African American mathematicians who worked at NASA in the early 60’s and were responsible for the organizations propulsion into the space race.


The group will partner with The League of Women Voters for a conference on mental wellness advocacy in the Mobile area. While the exact date is tentative, Sherry Graham from the LoSV is set to give a talk as part of the 2017 South Alabama Mental Wellness Conference Series.

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Political student organizations can post in the daily digest