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Student Government Tries To Pass Sedition Act

This story was written by Isral DeBruin and Jonathan Anderson, UWM Post

According to legal experts, the SA Sedition Act would have been an unconstitutional and illegal stifling of free speech had it become law.

The act was vetoed two days after it was passed by the Student Association (SA) Senate on Feb. 10 with a 10-7 vote. A veto override failed unanimously at last night's SA meeting.

One senator abstained from the vote, saying because she was absent from the previous meeting she felt unable to make an educated decision about the bill.

The act would have allowed the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee SA to issue "cease and desist orders" to parties disseminating what it believed to be libelous or slanderous communication. If an order were not obeyed, the act said, "civil relief" in the form of a lawsuit would be sought.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, condemned the Sedition Act.

"It is distressing that a university governance group (the SA) would try to claim a right to censor speech in the guise of prosecuting libel and slander," Ahmuty said. "There is nothing more destructive of democratic government than the power in the hands of the government to stifle opposition and silence dissent by lawsuits."

The ACLU's condemnation of the Sedition Act came just days after its author, Sen. Joseph Ohler, SA academic affairs director, said he anticipated "no negative fallout" from the passage of the bill.

Ohler later said he thought an override of the veto was "winnable." SA President Robert Grover agreed that there was a chance of an override but called the bill "crazy."

Ohler, did not attend last night's meeting when the veto override failed due to inclement weather conditions.

Legal experts speak out

Had the act become law, David Pritchard, a UWM media law professor, said there is no question it would have been ruled unconstitutional.

"The so-called 'Sedition Act' is unconstitutional on its face," Pritchard said. "Any state or federal judge in Wisconsin would declare the 'Sedition Act' to be unconstitutional in a heartbeat."

Mark Zoromski, another UWM media law professor, said he agreed with Pritchard's statements.

Pritchard pointed to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in explaining the flaws of the Sedition Act. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Pritchard said, established that units of government can't sue for libel in the United States.

Furthermore, the Sullivan case's decision states that the original Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, the SA Sedition Act's namesake, would have been ruled unconstitutional had they ever been brought to court.

"Under American law, units of government cannot be libeled," Pritchard explained. "One of the flaws of the 'Sedition Act' is that it apparently can be activated only by 'libelous or slanderous communications regarding the SA,'" Pritchard continued, quoting the act. "But the SA as an organization can't be libeled."

Ahmuty agreed and said, "Government bodies cannot sue for libel or slander for good reason."

Jennifer Peterson, legal counsel for the UWM Post and attorney specializing in media law at LaFollette, Godfrey and Kahn in Madison, said the issue concerned basic democratic principles.

"I think it's unfortunate that student leaders don't want to encourage robust discourse on campus," Peterson said. "Your student leadership should be fostering discussion about issues, not trying to quash people's views or stifle discussion of various issues including student government acts. They should be welcoming commentary from their constituents." While SA President Grover accused the Post of poor filtering practices and "shoddy journalism,&qut; he said he agreed that the Sedition Act was inappropriate and said he was disappointed that it originally passed the Senate.

"We need to make sure that we never stifle any speech on campus, whether it be stuff we like to hear or stuff we don't like to hear," Grover said.

Funding a libel suit

Should the SA have attempted to pursue "civil relief" under the bill, the act would have called for the allocation of money from private funds if no other funding mechanism were available. When Ohler was asked about this, he said if the SA wasn't able to obtain pro bono representation, "student university fees allocated by the Senate Finance Committee" would be used.

According to Tom McGinnity, UWM assistant dean of students, the SA would need to get express permission from the Wisconsin governor to use funding in this way.

"UW System Policy F50 prohibits the use of segregated fees for the 'cost of legal services except where the governor has approved hiring an attorney to provide student legal services at an institution,'" McGinnity said, quoting UW policy.

Act sponsors withdraw support

Ohler said the Sedition Act was his idea and that he wrote it "in isolation" in response to libelous e-mails sent through student organization e-mail reflectors last semester as well as two UWM Post articles about an underground student political group called Students for Responsible Government (SRG).

After the act was finished, Ohler gave it what he called a "flashy" name and took it to the Senate leadership for support.

"I got some big-name sponsors," Ohler said of those who had signed on to support the Sedition Act. "I was actually kind of flattered at how quickly some of our senate leadership took to it."

The big-name sponsors Ohler referenced were Sens. A.J. Piwarun, Tyler Draheim and Tyler Kristopeit. Piwarun is the President of SRG and Draheim is the Vice President. During last Sunday's Senate meeting, Draheim praised the act.

"This is great legislation," Draheim said. "Joe wrote it with the best intent." Piwarun said he agreed.

"I agree with Sen. Draheim," Piwarun said. "If certain newspapers print lies about Student Association members and it's slander, this is a matter to combat that."

Later in the week, though, Piwarun and Draheim said in e-mails to the Post that they were withdrawing their support of the act.

Draheim thanked Grover for vetoing the bill and encouraged fellow senators not to stifle free speech.

"I am not overly familiar with media law or with the history of similar bills in Congress," Draheim said, "but when I was made aware that this would be a breach of rights, I quickly changed my tune. I am no longer a supporter of this legislation."

Piwarun said he thought the intent of the act was valid but the wording was errant. Kristopeit said in an e-mail to the Post that he would not withdraw his sponsorship of the bill for the sake of "political expediency," however he said he planned to vote against a veto override. The senator said the legislation was not meant to deny student rights, but to protect those of the SA.

"Personally, I highly respect, and support, the rights of reporters and the press - but, in the debate surrounding this legislation, I have heard virtually nothing about the rights of the Student Association," Kristopeit said.

Kristopeit went on to criticize the Post for recently "abusing" its First Amendment Rights. Grover defended the author and sponsors of the act and said they meant well.

"I don't want to demonize the people that pushed it through because I don't think they had bad intentions when they authored it," Grover said.

Adam Goldstein, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, said he uestioned the support that helped the act initially pass the Senate.

"Anyone who doesn't see there's a problem with the Sedition Act shouldn't be in government, or student government," said Goldstein in a telephone interview from his office in Arlington, Va.

At last night's SA meeting, before the act was shot down, Grover voiced his opposition to the legislation.

"It is not the direction that we want to be taking the Student Association," Grover said.

Ohler said in an e-mail sent to the Post after the meeting that he believed the media attention the Sedition Act received had sufficiently raised awareness about the topic of responsible communication. Therefore, he said, he will not propose similar legislation again.

© 2008 UWM Post via U-WIRE

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