Current as of September 2020
I am a U-M employee. May I use my umich email account to send and receive messages that support or oppose particular candidates or ballot initiatives, as long as I am clear I am not acting on behalf of the University in doing so?
Updated in January: No. The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office has clarified its view that a university employee who sends political campaign emails during working hours is violating the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. That’s true even if the emails were sent without the approval or knowledge of the university or if there was no indication that the employee was purporting to act on the university’s behalf.
Although the Secretary of State’s Office focused on emails sent “during normal working hours,” a separate, non-university email account should be used for any emails, sent at any time, that support or oppose particular candidates or ballot initiatives. And of course, an employee who is sending personal messages (political or otherwise) from any email account must not state or imply that they are acting on behalf of the university.
I am a U-M employee and, in my personal time and using my personal email accounts, I am active in various political campaigns. May I send copies of my political campaign-related emails from my personal email account to my U-M account?
Updated in January: No. Although the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office recognizes a difference between sending and receiving emails, the Secretary of State’s Office has concluded that this scenario would constitute a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act because public resources (the institutional email account) were used and the sender controlled both the private and the government-owned (taxpayer-funded) email account.
May I conduct research on the impact of a ballot or campaign proposal?
Yes. Conducting and reporting on research is an integral part of the university’s academic mission, and state law does not prohibit that.
May I post the results of my research to a university website, Facebook page, or Twitter account?
Yes, in the same way you and other researchers post such information on a variety of research topics every day. However, a university website, Facebook page, or Twitter account may not direct, expressly or by implication, others to vote a particular way in a candidate or ballot election.
In my personal time, I am active in local politics and would like to organize a virtual fundraiser for my preferred candidate. Can I use a Zoom at U-M account for my candidate fundraiser?
No. This would constitute use of a university resource to support a candidate, and thus is not permissible. You should use a personal Zoom (or other web-conferencing service) account instead.
Am I allowed to invite speakers to campus to discuss a ballot proposal or other issues being discussed as part of an election campaign?
Yes, as long as you follow standard university policies to use campus facilities. These policies ensure that all sides are given the opportunity for equal access.
I’m part of a student organization. Is my group allowed to invite a guest speaker who is a political candidate or who will be speaking about a ballot proposal or other campaign issue, using funding provided by the university for student groups?
Yes, as long as your proposed activity complies with student organization funding guidelines. University funds are allocated broadly across student organizations in a manner that is viewpoint neutral.
Can I hold fundraising events for particular candidates or ballot proposals on-campus?
No, this kind of fundraising is not permitted on-campus. You could hold campaign fundraising events off-campus, as long as you do not use university resources to do so, or otherwise state or suggest university involvement in that fundraising event.
May I organize a conference to discuss ballot proposals or campaign issues, either on- or off-campus?
If your conference is solely educational, you can host it on- or off-campus and can use university resources to organize it.
If your conference amounts to a campaign event for or against a candidate or ballot proposal, then you cannot use university resources for your conference, wherever it is staged.
If your conference amounts to a campaign event, but university funds will not be used and no fundraising will occur, you could have your event on campus, provided you follow standard policies on use of university facilities, or off campus, as you prefer.
I’m planning an on-campus, university-funded event that will discuss a proposal that is on the ballot in next week’s election. Is there anything I can do to make it clear that my event is intended to be educational in nature?
It is true that the proximity of an event to an election can sometimes increase the possibility that some might misperceive it as intended to influence the outcome of that election. If you are concerned that your event might be misconstrued as an endorsement of or opposition to the ballot proposal, you may want to consider how you will describe the event in advertisements and other program materials so that you can emphasize its educational focus. You can always contact the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel if you have questions about how to proceed, and you are encouraged to do so as early in the planning process as possible.
May individuals and organizations have campaign-related events in university facilities?
Yes, as long as university policies are followed. It is natural for candidates and political campaigns to want to visit campus and engage the university community, and state law generally allows it. Candidates and ballot question committees may not engage in fundraising on campus and must follow the university’s standard procedures for use of university facilities. These policies ensure that all sides are given the opportunity for equal access, and are intended to avoid the misperception that the university itself supports or endorses the campaign-related event that is taking place on campus.
I heard an interview on Michigan Radio (WUOM/WVGR/WFUM) with a guest who was voicing a strong opinion about a ballot proposal. Are university-owned media allowed to publish or broadcast interviews about campaign topics?
Yes. State law clearly recognizes the rights of the news media, including university-owned media, to do all of the things a news media outlet typically does in an election year, including interview candidates, host debates and call-in shows, provide commentary, publish op-ed pieces, and report news stories on the election.
I saw an announcement for an on-campus, university-sponsored event discussing the platforms of the candidates in the upcoming election. I completely disagree with one of the speaker’s political views. Isn’t this event obviously in violation of Michigan law? How can I stop the event?
University-sponsored events that discuss political candidates, or that feature speakers with known political views, are not unusual at U-M or other universities, which seek — as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized — to foster “a free and robust marketplace of ideas, from whatever perspective.” Accordingly, such events do not inherently violate the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.
It will undoubtedly be the case that some members of the university community will disagree with certain invited speakers, while other community members might agree with those speakers and disagree with others who are invited to speak. If you disagree with an invited speaker, you have many options to express your disagreement, but stopping the event or disinviting the speaker typically would not be among them. Instead, you might consider attending the event and sharing your concerns during times in which the speaker is interacting with the audience, protesting the event, or organizing another event that would provide an opportunity to share other viewpoints on the subject. The university’s policy on freedom of speech and artistic expression provides additional helpful information.
I have been invited as a panelist to discuss a campaign issue. May I participate?
Yes, as long as you do not say or imply as a panelist that you are representing the official views of the university. This does not necessarily mean that you cannot identify yourself by reference to your U-M affiliation, as discussed further below.
May I sign a letter to the editor or other communication on an election issue with my name and university affiliation?
Certainly you can send a letter to the editor using your name. Whether it is appropriate to give a university affiliation depends on the circumstances. As a general matter, it is inappropriate in a non-work-related setting to state or imply that you represent the university, and giving an affiliation may have that effect. The easiest way to avoid even an implication that you are writing on behalf of the university is not to include your affiliation. Another alternative, though, is to include a disclaimer that your title or position is given for identification purposes only and does not indicate university support for or endorsement of the views you are advocating.
May I use my U-M office to campaign, provided I don’t say I am representing the university?
No. That would be use of a university resource (the office itself) to promote a candidate or ballot initiative in violation of state law. The same prohibition would apply if you were using another university-provided resource, such as a computer, cell phone, or web conferencing account, to campaign for or against a candidate or ballot proposal.
May I post items supporting or opposing particular candidates or ballot proposals to my department’s official Facebook page or Twitter account?
No, because use of the department’s official Facebook page or Twitter account would likely be taken as indicating university agreement with the position taken in your posting. You could, however, post factual material about campaign-related issues (as described above). Moreover, you could post items supporting or endorsing particular candidates or ballot proposals to your own personal social media accounts.
Does the university provide its listserv or email groups to individuals or organizations for the purpose of disseminating messages supporting or opposing particular candidates or ballot proposals?
No, the university neither supplies nor approves of the use of its email groups for communications about campaign-related issues.
I’m a university employee and would like to run for office. Is there anything I need to know?
First, congratulations on your decision to seek political office. Although the university encourages its employees to be civically engaged, including by serving in public office, the university cannot permit use of its resources to support or oppose particular candidates. Accordingly, you should be sure that you review the materials on this website so that you are aware of the limitations that apply.
In addition, under Regents’ Bylaw 5.13, upon filing your candidacy, you must notify the Secretary of the University in writing; your notification must include a statement from your supervisor, department head, or dean that arrangements have been made to ensure that your candidacy will not interfere with your university employment duties. If you would prefer, you may take a leave of absence without salary during the period of your campaign.
If you are elected (or if you are appointed to public office), you must file a similar written notification with the Secretary of the University, again including a statement from your supervisor, department head, or dean that arrangements have been made to ensure that your public office duties will not interfere with your university employment duties. If your public duties would interfere with your university duties, you can request a leave of absence without salary or resign from your University employment. Regents’ Bylaw 5.13 and University Standard Practice Guide 201.30 provide additional information about leaves of absence for governmental service.
May I use the Block M in a political ad for the candidate I am supporting?
No. The university would not permit such use since it cannot, by law, support or oppose political candidates. Neither the Block M, the University Seal, nor other U-M trademarks may be used in political ads. Additionally, U-M does not permit the filming of political campaign ads on campus.
Political campaign ads filmed off-campus cannot show U-M brands, trademarks, or signs, or in any way imply the endorsement of the university. Get further information regarding the prohibition on using the university’s name or marks in political campaigns here. Further information about the university’s filming policy is available here.
I am a U-M alum and I am running for political office. May I describe myself as “the U-M candidate” in my campaign messages?
No. Use of a phrase like “the U-M candidate” or the use of university logos or trademarked phrases would inaccurately suggest university endorsement of your candidacy. You may, however, make factual assertions referencing U-M, such as “I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1992” or “I am a proud alum of the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.” Further information regarding the prohibition on using the university’s name or marks in political campaigns is available here.
Are there different rules for students than for faculty and staff? What about alums or retirees?
Not explicitly. However, the Campaign Finance Act restrictions on use of public resources in political campaigns apply to public bodies “and individuals acting for a public body.” In almost all cases, a student, alum, or retiree would not be acting on behalf of the university, although there may be some circumstances in which that could be – or appear to be – the case. It is therefore important to look at the context when determining whether an individual was acting, or would be perceived as having been acting, on behalf of the University.
May I wear a campaign button to work?
It depends on the circumstance. In your individual capacity you may fully engage in the political process by, among other things, wearing political buttons. If, however, you are wearing a political button and you say, or if the context implies, that you are acting on behalf of the university, that may raise concerns under the Campaign Finance Act. It may not be appropriate, for example, to wear a campaign button during a speech to a group in which you are serving as a representative of the university because this could appear to imply U-M endorsement of the particular campaign that you are supporting.
I am a university employee. May I encourage colleagues or others to vote, without advocating a particular position?
Yes, as long as you are not advocating for or against a particular candidate or issue. The president, deans and others periodically encourage members of the university community to vote, and that is acceptable and even appropriate. The university has long valued political engagement and voting is just one way to engage in the political process.
Why are the university’s president and other administrators able to speak about ballot proposals or other campaign-related topics in their public speeches, media interviews, etc.?
An exception to the restrictions in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act applies to the expression of views by an elected or appointed public official with policy-making responsibilities. The president of the university, as well as other high-level administrators, fall within this exception, which means that they may state their views, orally or in writing, on campaign-related issues.
What are the penalties for violating the laws about participating in a political campaign?
It is a misdemeanor to knowingly violate Section 57 of Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act. The law is enforced by the Michigan Department of State, which also may refer matters to the state attorney general for enforcement of criminal penalties. Individuals who knowingly violate this law are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both. Also, if U-M resources are used illegally, the university could be fined $20,000, or an amount equal to the value of the resources used, whichever is greater.
Does the Michigan Campaign Finance Act apply to lobbying activities?
No, the Michigan Campaign Finance Act does not itself address lobbying activities. However, federal and state lobbying laws, as well as IRS regulations, do set requirements for lobbying and specifically limit lobbying activities by organizations like the university. The university has adopted a policy addressing lobbying activities by its employees to help ensure compliance with these legal requirements. More information regarding the university’s policy on lobbying by faculty or staff can be found here. For more information regarding the federal lobbying laws generally, check here.
Do these campaign guidelines apply to me if I am not a U.S. citizen?
Yes, these guidelines apply to you, regardless of your citizenship. However, as a non-citizen, there are additional limitations that apply to your personal campaign-related activities. More information about those limitations is available from the Federal Election Commission website here.
How can I get more information or responses to specific questions?
Contact Maya R. Kobersy in the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel at firstname.lastname@example.org.