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Life Fee, Free Speech Referenda on Ballot

By Jeremy Hylton
Editor in Chief

A referendum soliciting support for a student life fee to fund student activities was placed on next week's Undergraduate Association election ballot by the UA Council last night.

The council also discussed a free speech referendum placed on the ballot by a group of students. Lars E. Bader G described the referendum's three questions, which concern free speech and the Institute harassment policy.

If students vote in favor of the fee, the UA plans to establish the new program this fall. A student life fee has been in the works for over a year, but plans were derailed last spring when only 15 percent of the student body cast ballots in a similar referendum.

A student life fee would provide more money for student activities, according to David J. Kessler '94, UA vice president. "I think it's the only way we could increase the amount of money we give student activities," he said.

The referendum is needed to convince Dean for Undergraduate Education and Students Affairs Arthur C. Smith and other administrators that students support an activities fee, said Shally Bansal '93, UA president.

Student activities are currently funded by the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, which provided $76,000 last year, Kessler said. Activities regularly request five to six times more money than they receive, Bansal explained.

Fee could be $35 per student

Though no concrete proposal exists, UA officials discussed setting the fee at $30 to $35 per student last night. "We're not exactly sure how much the fee will be," Bansal said. "Thirty-five dollars per student would probably be enough."

The Dean's Office currently allocates roughly $17 per student, Bansal said. The new fee would be set by the UA Council, based on a recommendation from the UA Finance Board.

If the student life fee passes, the Dean's Office would not appropriate funds for student activities, so tuition would rise by $18 -- the difference between $17 and the $35 fee.

The lengthy referendum question outlined last night focuses on the process that will set the fee. In part the question reads: "The fee would be set by the the UA Council in February every other year. ... After setting the fee, it would be automatically placed on the ballot for the regular March elections. If two-thirds of at least 30 percent of the student body reject the fee, the level will remain unchanged."

The plan specifically details the process for setting the life fee, so that the referendum result will show the response of informed voters, according to Bansal. "It depends on what the plan is to determine whether people like it," she said.

The plan, as specified in the referendum, would not allow the fee to change by more than 10 percent per year.

The details of changing the fee were debated at length last night. Sophia Yen '93 was concerned that a two-thirds majority was required to reject a change in the fee. She argued for a simple majority, because the current process does not adequately represent all students.

"I think there's an inherent problem in FinBoard and I don't like this plan," Yen said. She also noted: "We aren't representative of people who live off campus."

Colin M. Page '95 was concerned because the referendum was so specific. "I'm concerned about why we're doing this in such detail," he said.

The council ultimately decided to endorse the original referendum, which was prepared by the UA executive committee.

Free speech questions criticized

The free speech questions outlined by Bader provoked strong criticism from several council members. The questions, which Bader hopes will spark a campus-wide discussion of freedom of speech, were described as "very slanted" by Kessler.

Two of the questions ask students whether they support certain limits on free speech. The third specifically asks if the Institute's harassment policy should be revised "to provide for protection for freedom of speech."

The questions were placed on the ballot after Bader submitted a petition signed by more than 10 percent of undergraduate students, according to Raajnish Chitaley '95, UA floor leader.

"We need a referendum to demonstrate that the policy should incorporate safeguards for freedom of speech," Bader said. "If people vote for it, it will encourage the development of a more precise policy that can provide specific assurance of relief to people who've been harassed while also providing specific assurance that well-intentioned speech will not be punished."

The Institute includes in its definition of harassment any conduct that creates "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment." Bader is concerned that legitimate free speech could be silenced to prevent an offensive environment.

Many UA councilors were frustrated by the referendum. The Institute has never limited free speech to prevent harassment, they said. "It's sort of like tilting at windmills," Page said.

Several council members were upset that students could place questions on the ballot, without any UA control. "I'm personally very concerned we have no ability to change this," Page said.

Kessler and several others were also concerned that the wording of the questions guaranteed that students would vote for them. "It's sort of like asking, `Do you support education?'," one councilor said.

Bader admits that the harassment policy has not been abused yet, but the potential exists, he said.

Bader also questions the legality of the harassment policy. "Speech codes at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan which used the `offensive environment' test were struck down by federal courts," he said.