OGDEN — A North Ogden lawmaker has expressed concerns about state-funded universities using resources to back what he considers to be partisan causes.
Higher education has long afforded opportunities to explore new frontiers of thought, research and full-throated debate. And while Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, said he fully supports such academic freedom, he questioned whether two Weber State University professors and President Charles Wight went too far and breached policy regarding use of university email for partisan purposes.
“I love that our university engages in accommodating political forums,” Fawson said, adding that he believes it’s critical for students to be involved in those discussions. “But I’m also convinced that our university needs to remain neutral in its stance and not promote partisanship or any singular partisan idea. I don’t want state resources being utilized in any type of partisan effort because it would violate university policy.”
In mid-March, Fawson filed a government records request, seeking emails and cellphone texts to and from Weber professors John Armstrong and Jim Hutchins regarding a billboard erected near 31st Street and Wall Avenue about U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s perceived lack of engagement with some constituent concerns.
Fawson’s request also sought emails to and from Wight regarding Pres. Donald Trump and his campaign.
The Standard-Examiner duplicated Fawson’s request and asked for the same records.
The 36 pages of emails involving Bishop consisted mostly of WSU calendars of events, which mentioned an October 2016 debate between the longtime Republican incumbent and Democratic challenger Peter Clemens, and a February 2016 presentation on caucus participation featuring Bishop and Davis County’s Democratic Party Chairman Stroh de Caire. Bishop also spoke at Weber State in November 2015 during Veterans Day activities.
In a March 21 email regarding Fawson’s request, Assistant Attorney General Morris Haggerty said there were a few emails referencing Bishop and the billboard that were deemed personal and “not official business,” so would not be produced. And since the university does not pay for the professors’ cellphones, their texts were also deemed personal and would not be produced.
“However, if you have texts that discuss University business about the requested topics, please supply a screen shot of those to me for production,” Haggerty instructed in his email.
A March 30 response from Weber State Records Officer Ronald Smith to the Standard-Examiner said that personal notes and communications are not considered records if they fall outside the individual acting in his/her professional capacity, and are unrelated to conduct of the public’s business.
Is protecting international students partisan?
The 177-page response for Wight’s emails regarding Trump revealed weighty considerations as universities around the country reacted to Pres. Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order banning immigrant and refugee travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. A Seattle court struck that ban down in February, and on March 6, Trump issued a second less-expansive travel ban, which has also been challenged by courts in Hawaii and Richmond, Virginia.
According to the Boston Globe, last Friday seven Massachusetts universities joined 31 other higher-education institutions in opposing Trump’s second ban in Richmond’s Fourth Circuit Court of appeals, claiming it hampers the free exchange of ideas and hinders their ability to attract top talent.
Immediately after Pres. Trump signed the first travel ban, a broad swath of universities denounced the damage it was causing in people’s lives. At the time, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said it should end as quickly as possible.
And on Jan. 31, WSU’s Wight sent out a mass email in response to the ban, expressing support for the university’s international students, faculty and staff, and urging Pres. Trump to reconsider and “reopen our country’s doors to the many international visitors and refugees who help make our nation and university great.” The university broadcast the same message via its official Twitter account.
On Feb. 1, Fawson emailed Wight, letting him know he believed Wight had violated university policy by using his official email for a partisan purpose.
Fawson said he heard from some constituents who said they’d been offended by Wight’s message.
“My concern is that we educate students at universities, and not take partisan stances on issues on either side, that we foster discussions and let students decide what their political views are,” Fawson said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for university employees who are paid by the state to perpetuate very partisan messages.”
An email to Wight from a student whose name had been redacted took him to task for a statement he deemed disheartening: “I respectfully urge you, President Wight to support our Commander In Chief in the decisions that he makes to better this country. How come I did not receive any emails regarding criticisms about our past president (Obama)?”
The student went on to urge Wight to stop watching fake news sources such as CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and Fox — and switch to Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, Breitbart and others who share “correct” news.
In his reply, Wight thanked the student for his letter and said he was sorry the writer felt he had no voice at Weber State “because that is antithetical to our purpose here.”
Fawson had originally intended to sponsor a bill during the 2017 state legislative session to “restore campus free speech,” by addressing what he viewed as ongoing policy violations by state employees. According to Fawson, many communications had been sent to students over the past several months on behalf of political, partisan issues, and his measure would centralize and clarify policies to eliminate that misuse of state-funded resources. However, he abandoned the unnumbered bill well before the session ended on March 9.
“I didn’t feel there was time to pursue it this session,” Fawson said of his reasons for backing off the effort. “When we’re talking abut free speech issues, it certainly wasn’t a bill I wanted to rush.”
Weber’s policy states: “Using the University’s official web site or email for partisan political purposes (with the exception of announcements of general public interest by university political clubs) is prohibited.”
An opinion from Haggerty’s office to Wight specifically addressed Wight’s mass message regarding Trump’s travel ban in light of a narrow interpretation of “partisan” applying to political parties and candidates but not to political uses.
“Your email was not directed to President Trump nor was it related to any other political candidate or party,” Assistant Attorney General Kevin Olsen said in the written opinion, acknowledging that some might argue that “partisan political purposes” should not be so narrowly defined as to exclude conduct relating to a political issue.
The rest of Wight’s email — including the subject line “Supporting Weber State University’s International Community” — provided further context to why it should not be considered partisan. “It is clear from this language that your purpose was not to support or oppose a political cause, but rather to support a part of your campus community that was affected by the President’s order.”
Included in the 177 pages of government records were emails praising Wight for his message.