Political activity tightened on public campuses

Commissioner’s Office will review legality if bill becomes law

By: - April 29, 2021 8:10 pm

Peering out the second floor of the Montana Capitol while the Legislature is in session (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

Montana legislators cracked down this week on organized political activity on public campuses, such as door knocking in dorm rooms, in an amendment to campaign finance legislation, Senate Bill 319.

The amendment over political activity on public campuses and another one related to student organizations were finalized Wednesday. In a meeting discussing final amendments to the bill, Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, argued in their favor, and Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula offered pushback.

Fitzpatrick said if a student organization is “really a political action committee” and funded with a fee, students need to “opt in” to that fee and pay it independently of tuition. He said one organization in particular is problematic at the University of Montana, although he did not name it.

“They’re basically doing ballot drives, they’re doing all kinds of stuff with student money, almost taxpayer-funded political action committee,” Fitzpatrick said.

Bennett said the amendment was an effort to kill the organization, which isn’t funded by taxpayers at all but by students who choose to support it; he said outside money funds the advocacy students desire. He also did not name the group.

But he said the organization focuses on civic engagement, such as voter registration, and nonpartisan education. Bennett also said it’s possible the law oversteps because the Montana Board of Regents controls the Montana University System.

In an email Thursday, university system spokesperson Karen Ogden said it isn’t yet clear if the amendments that address campuses are an overreach, but if the bill becomes law, the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education will analyze it.

The bill had passed both chambers Thursday, the last day of the session, but it had not yet been signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. 

The other amendment restricts political action committees from collecting signatures, ballots, or trying to get out the vote inside residence halls, dining facilities or athletic facilities. Violators risk a $1,000 penalty.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, wanted to understand why a person knocking on a dorm room was so different from one knocking on the door of a house.

Fitzpatrick said college students need a break, and he said in his time in college, some places were off limits.

“People didn’t get to walk around and bang on doors,” Fitzpatrick said. “So like I said, if you want to do your get out the vote drive, do it outside of the building.”

Bennett said the bill meant student dorm residents who are volunteers themselves couldn’t talk to their neighbors without getting crosswise with the law.

He also said the measure didn’t square with another bill the Montana Legislature passed to protect free speech on campus. He said it’s important that diverse conversations take place and different ideas are aired.

“This (amendment) is sort of a direct affront to that because we’re going to make it harder and harder for people to be able to exercise that first amendment right,” Bennett said.

But Fitzpatrick said organizations can set up shop in student union buildings. Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said it wouldn’t be hard to set up registration booths in other places for students, and students can easily figure out where to register to vote.

“I think these students are very smart at the university level,” he said.

Members of the public don’t testify on amendments to bills, and the Montana Associated Students could not be immediately reached Thursday for comment on the amendments.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.