The Center for Responsive Politics reported earlier this year that the third-top contributor to President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was the University of California, which donated $243,486 this election cycle.
Given that over the past three years university officials have added thousands of dollars in students’ fees to make up for a $750 million budget cut, many students might find political donations on this scale to be an outrageous waste of money at a time of dire need for the University. Indeed, a six-figure donation to a political candidate is a lot of money for a cause that, in a democratic society, is bound to counter some peoples’ beliefs. But still, donating to politicians can have a positive effect when it comes time for that candidate to repay favors, so is the UC and its professors wasting money?
First, there’s an important distinction to make with the issue of UC political fundraising. The campaign donations were not made by the University of California itself, rather, by individuals and groups associated with the UC. That means professors, administrators or anybody else employed by the UC spent a collective $230,000 of their own money while identified as employees of the UC. This is not exactly a new phenomenon either. In 2008, UC employees donated over $1.3 million to the Obama campaign, according to the Los Angeles Times. Nevertheless, these donations identify UC with a political candidate, and might falsely reflect the institution’s partisan support.
It’s important to keep in mind that money is, as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, protected by the First Amendment as a form of free speech. This principle has been articulated most recently by the SCOTUS Citizens’ United decision, which opened the door to unlimited and anonymous corporate donations to political campaigns. That decision was based in large part on the reasoning that corporations act and are responsible as individuals, and that how they spend their money is speech. Individuals’ right to free speech in the form of corporate donations, therefore, is protected under the First Amendment. The controversial ruling united for the first time two ideas previously held by the Court, although the principle of money as speech has been far more developed, such as in the Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo. That case established for the first time an explicit relationship between money and free speech, although it said nothing of corporations as individuals.
How UC professors, staff and administrators spend their money is their business entirely. These individuals are and should be free to support the candidates they want with as much of their money as they want. The fact that their names are attached to the University, however, is a different question. Identifying the employers of campaign contributors helps political campaigns target their sources of revenue and allows them to hone in on a demographic likely to cough up for a candidate. Even as a self-identifying liberal, I admit that I’m pleased about UC employees’ support for the better candidate in 2012.
But identifying the University with personal donations does a disservice to the intellectual and political diversity on this and other UC campuses. The political dialogue at University of California Santa Barbara has taken a poisonous turn at times, such as the debate that occurred outside of Karl Rove’s visit in 2009, which resulted in protesters forming a human chain in front of the event. That could very well have resulted in a lawsuit against the protesters, who by blocking entrance to the venue, violated the rights of people who wanted to hear Rove speak. Let us not conflate these issues- nobody’s rights are being violated by the donations. Still, it’s unfair to those who do not support Obama to be lumped with those who do, particularly those willing to pony up for him.