Landed in Madison, Wisconsin last night for a training this afternoon with the student government association at the University of Wisconsin. This morning I popped into Paul’s Books, like I always do when I’m in Madison, to check out their education section. By far the best collection of obscure student movement histories of any bookstore I’ve ever been in.

Anyway, I was flipping through the shelves and stumbled across a book called “The Dignity of Youth and Other Ativisms,” which I’d never heard of, by a sociologist I’ve never heard of.

It’s a collection of essays and book reviews, mostly about high school students, and I was about to close it and put it back when a glimpse of something caught my eye. I thumbed back and there it was: “U.S.N.S.A.”

I come across references to NSA in books from this era all the time, and usually they’re not of much interest. But this was different, it turned out. Better. Way better. The author had “twice been a speaker at national meetings of the United States National Student Association,” most recently in 1963 (the book was published in 1965), and a big chunk of the preface—eight dense pages—is devoted to his impressions of the National Student Congresses he attended.

There’s a tremendous amount of great stuff in here, and I’m immensely frustrated not to have found it while I was working on my dissertation. Some excerpts:

“It is not tedious and boring; neither is it, in the usual sense, exciting and interesting. These are not the right dimensions along which to place the experience, which is psychedelic rather than intellectual. Within a few hours, as the emotional pressure of the meeting gradually builds up, other aspects of reality lose their power to distract; to break off from the meeting would produce an aesthetic shock, a sense of incomplete closure.”

“U.S.N.S.A. delegates play politics not like professional politicians but like tough amateurs of a sport at which they excel. Victory does not change the course of history, and they know it, but they mean to win and they play for keeps. They put—the cliché is precise—body and soul into it.”

“The kids dress for comfort, and at their age to dress for comfort is to dress for effect. I do not simply mean that this makes them more attractive, though it certainly does; but that the whole feeling-tone becomes more authentic; gestures are more revealing, the whole emotional weight of the delegate seems to flow more easily into what he is saying. If this seems like mere personal fantasy, I would suggest that you imagine Senator Dirksen attempting to carry his point while dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts and sandals. There are students at the University of Illinois, however, who can do this quite effectively.”

Note: The student judiciary at UMass Amherst has upheld the Elections Commission ruling in the dispute I discuss in this piece. See the end of the article for an overview.

I recently stumbled across a story about this spring’s student government elections at UMass Amherst, and it raised some issues about campaign regulations that I see fairly often.

Five slates ran candidates for president and vice president in this month’s UMass SGA elections, and the ticket of Ellie Miske and Gabrielle Cook won—decisively, if not overwhelmingly. The two picked up 36% of the votes cast in a fractured field, beating their nearest competitor by about a hundred and fifty votes. A third member of their ticket, Emily Devenney, won the college’s student trustee seat by a slightly wider margin.

After the votes were tallied, though, the winning ticket was disqualified by the SGA’s elections committee and the second-place team was declared the winner. The disqualification was grounded in three violations of election rules: The use of a 10%-off coupon at the campus copy shop, the use of a candidate’s personal printer to copy election materials, and a candidate’s campaigning in a dorm without an escort.

The Miske-Cook-Devenney ticket is challenging the disqualification, and from this outsider’s perspective it seems that they have a decent case on each of the three charges.

Regarding the copy shop, the committee found that the use of the coupon amounted to a prohibited appropriation of campaign funds and a violation of the rule that “all candidates must purchase their materials at fair market prices to which all other candidates shall have reasonable access. The first of these conclusions seems flatly wrong to me—the copy shop didn’t “appropriate funds for the purpose of campaigning,” as prohibited by the SGA regulations, they just offered a general discount to the campus community. And while reasonable people can disagree about the definition of “reasonable access,” it  certainly seems a stretch to construe the coupon use as a willful violation of the rule.

The printer complaint is perhaps a bit stronger, but here again the rule is arguably ambiguous—and also a little odd. Candidates are required to declare all equipment and supplies used in campaigning, but both “computers” and “copy machines” are explicitly exempted from disclosure. It seems counter-intuitive, to say the least, that a candidate would be allowed undisclosed, unregulated use of a personally-owned copier but be prohibited from printing out flyers they designed on their (explicitly unregulated) computer on its (implicitly regulated) attached printer.

As for the unescorted campaigning complaint, it doesn’t appear to have been grounded in any specific provision of the SGA’s own bylaws, but rather in a broad prohibition on candidates violating any aspect of the campus code of conduct. In this case, the code says that no student may engage in solicitation in a dorm building—with “solicitation” defined as “planned, in-person sharing of information with and/or requesting of information from students living in a University residence.”

Now, campaigning for student government office is certainly “sharing of information with and/or requesting of information from students,” but so is interviewing residents for the student newspaper, and it’s hard to imagine anyone being brought up on charges for that. There’s also no indication in the elections report that any of the students who were approached by vice presidential candidate Gabrielle Cook in the dorms objected to the contact, and no suggestion that campus conduct charges against her were ever lodged.

Honestly, I’m kind of conflicted about all this. On the one hand, I think it’s important for elections to have rules, and important that those rules be followed. On the other hand, it’s also important that the will of the students be respected in campus elections, and significant that this disqualification has the effect of thwarting that will.

These kinds of questions come up a lot in student elections, partly because there are so few remedies available when the rules are broken. If you violate campaign laws in an actual government-government election, you’re almost never going to have your election thrown out. Instead, you’ll be fined or prosecuted. But because those options aren’t in the toolkit of a student elections board, disqualifying candidates tends to be the go-to remedy.

It’s not unreasonable, in principle, to disqualify a student association candidate for election violations, but it is a huge, drastic step to take, and should be treated like one. As I said above, when you kick a candidate off the ballot—or worse, bar the winning candidate from taking office—you’re thwarting the will of the students, denying them the prerogative to choose their own representatives. That’s not just anti-democratic, it’s profoundly corrosive of students’ support for their student association—support that tends not to be all that high to begin with.

Given all that, candidates should only be disqualified where their actions have fundamentally compromised the democratic process through willful, substantive violation of the rules. You kick them out when it would demonstrably do the system more harm not to.

And what about the other, less egregious cases? What do you do with them? I don’t have a simple one-sentence answer for that one. I can think of a variety of remedies that might have value in specific circumstances—censure, allowing the next year’s assembly to take up the complaint, throwing the election out and starting over, docking a portion of a stipend—though each of them has obvious drawbacks. It’s a difficult question.

But in the case of UMass it seems a pretty easy call. Whatever the misdeeds of the disbarred ticket, the flaws in the rules loom at least at large. If you don’t want candidates using coupons to buy supplies, you should say so clearly. If personal copiers and personal printers are to be treated differently from each other, that should be made explicit. And if you’re going to kick an entire winning ticket off the ballot because one of its members talked to some students in a dorm without a chaperone, that should be made obvious in the rules, not left for the candidates to discover for themselves in the code of conduct.

If all that had been done before this election—if the SGA’s regulations had explicitly banned coupons and copiers and unescorted dorm visits—I’d find the penalty imposed a lot more proportionate. I’d likely still disagree with the rules themselves, but I wouldn’t see the punishment imposed for violating them as unreasonable.

As it stands now, though, it seems to me that the sensible thing to do is to seat the winning ticket, let the students’ voice be heard…and then fix the regs so that this situation never arises again.

May 1 Update | The student judiciary at UMass Amherst voted unanimously last night to uphold the Election Commission’s ruling. Some highlights from their decision, which an Amherst student forwarded to me by email:

  • The value of the disputed copy center coupon was found to have amounted to somewhere between three and nine dollars “and allowed the DMC ticket to produce a greater number of fliers than other candidates.” Evidence was offered that a candidate from another ticket had requested a coupon and been denied it.
  • The candidate who was accused of campaigning in a dorm without an escort said she had been escorted by residents for most of her visit to the building in question, but admitted that she had talked to students in the building’s lobby while her escort was not present. (She testified that she hadn’t realized that campaigning solo in the lobby was disallowed.)
  • The judiciary brushed aside the question of whether a printer and a copier are the same thing, finding that the relevant violation was in using the printer to produce campaign fliers in an unauthorized manner.

In the end, the judiciary found that talking to some students in a dorm lobby, using a coupon to produce campaign lit, and printing out 20-25 unauthorized fliers on a personal printer “significantly impacted the outcome of the election,” and thus constituted cause for setting aside the result.

So sometime not long before they went underground and started working in earnest to overthrow the United States government, Weatherman—the radical revolutionary fringe faction of Students for a Democratic Society—put together a songbook. Yes, a songbook.

And it wasn’t a collection of old activist songs, either. There were no union hymns or indigenous folk songs. It was a book of song parodies.

As best as I can figure out the Weatherman Songbook was written for the group’s December 1969 “War Council,” the six-day meeting at which the group formally endorsed a strategy of armed struggle against the government. It consisted of a dozen parodies of pop songs and show tunes, each given revolutionary lyrics.

“White Christmas” became “White Riot.” “Stop in the Name of Love” became “Stop Your Imperialist Plunder.” And in honor of North Korea’s dictator, “Maria” from West Side Story turned into this:

Kim Il Sung

I just met a Marxist-Leninist named Kim Il Sung

And suddenly his line

Seems so correct and fine

To me.

The Weatherman Songbook has always been a weird touchstone to me—an indelible artifact of an astonishing moment in American activist history when violent domestic rebellion and dorky rewrites of old Supremes songs could somehow go hand in hand. So wrong, so dumb, and yet somehow adorable.

Anyway, I recently read a memoir by Weather veteran Cathy Wilkerson. Sharp, insightful, passionate, critical. Great book. And she mentioned in passing something I’d never known: Who wrote the songbook.

And it turns out it was Ted Gold.

Ted Gold was a New York City kid. Born and raised on the Upper West Side, child of a doctor and a schoolteacher. In the early sixties his dad visited Mississippi to volunteer medical services for the civil rights movement, and Ted started a Friends of SNCC group at Stuyvesant, the city’s best public high school for really smart kids.

Gold went to Columbia after Stuyvesant, and joined SDS there. He did tutoring with Harlem kids in his spare time, and wound up becoming a teacher. He stayed involved in SDS after graduation, helping to organize a short-lived spinoff, Teachers for a Democratic Society.

And on March 6, 1970, he died in the Weather townhouse explosion in Greenwich Village, when one of his comrades touched two wires together while assembling a bomb.

The sixties were so weird.

Fifty years ago today a front-page article in the New York Times turned the Kitty Genovese murder into one of the central myths of contemporary urban society. In The New Inquiry this morning, I take a look at the ways in which new research has rendered the Times account unsupportable.

An excerpt:

Karl Ross heard the first attack — at least he heard screaming. Then the screams died down and for a few minutes he heard nothing. But soon he heard other sounds, sounds coming from the lobby of his own building. Genovese had staggered there after Moseley had been scared off, but he had tracked her down. In the foyer, away from the eyes of the community, he was attacking her again. Now Ross was the only one who could hear. He hesitated, then opened the door to his apartment. He saw Genovese being attacked, just a flight of stairs away. He looked into her eyes, and those of her attacker. And then he closed the door.

Unlike Fink, Ross didn’t go to bed after witnessing the attack. He called a friend, asking for advice. When that friend told him to stay out of it, he called another. That friend told him to come over to her house, and he did — climbing out his window to avoid the scene in the lobby. When he got there that friend called a third, who called the police. The cops arrived a few minutes later.

When the Times reported on the murder, it was Ross’s feeble explanation to the police — “I didn’t want to get involved” — that summed up the story. His reaction was portrayed as nonchalant, brazen. But what the Times didn’t say was that Ross was involved. He knew Kitty Genovese. They were friends. He had recognized her when he saw her being stabbed in his lobby. By one account, she had called him by name.

So why didn’t he act more quickly?

We don’t know for sure. Ross never gave a detailed public account of his actions, and was never called to testify at the trial. He moved away not long after the murder, and soon disappeared entirely. But we do know a few things about Ross. We know that he was a drunk, and that he was drunk that night. We also know that he was gay, that he was closeted, and that he was afraid of the police. For Ross, cops weren’t just a potential source of assistance. They were also a potential threat.

Read the whole thing here.

Twitter is a public space, says Gawker, and conversations you have in public spaces are public. You want private? Take it to email, or text, or phone.

Seems legit. But apply this rule to the offline world, and it falls apart pretty quickly. Don’t want me butting into the conversation you’re having in a coffee shop? Take it to a hotel. Don’t want me snarking on that phone call about your cancer diagnosis? Talk quieter. Don’t want me putting your reaction to the car accident that killed your kid on YouTube? Grieve when you get home.

The reality is that the boundary between private acts and public acts is blurry, and always has been. People do private stuff in public all the time, and while we often have a legal right to violate the privacy of those moments, mostly we don’t, because it’s understood that we shouldn’t. It’s understood that it’s a jerky thing to do.

Is Twitter different? Maybe. In some ways it is. Certainly it’s generally simpler to snoop on people’s private conversations on Twitter than it is in meatspace — simpler not just because it’s easy to do, but also because it’s easy to do without getting caught. And while tweets aren’t more public than a loud conversation on a movie theater line, they are more massively public — they’re potentially visible to a lot more people.

Only potentially, though. To make them actually visible beyond their intended audience requires action — someone other than the speaker has to do something. Someone has to search or stalk or retweet. Unless they do, the actual audience is the intended audience, or some subset of it.

As someone who sometimes butts in on strangers’ Twitter conversations, and who sometimes writes about the stuff he reads on Twitter, the question I ask before hitting send isn’t whether I have a legal right to jump in (I assume I do, though I’ve never given the issue much thought) but whether the people I’m barging in on have an expectation of privacy, or might.

To see what I mean, let’s take it back to the offline world for a minute.

I speak on campuses and at student conferences pretty often. (I’m on my way to one as I write this, as it happens.) When I get up behind a podium at an event like that, what I say is presumptively public. If there’s a reporter there, what I say is fair game for quoting without permission or notice. Folks can and do take photos, even video, and put them up online without asking.

But what if I go out for dinner with some of my hosts afterwards? What if a student newspaper reporter happens to be along? Can they record our conversation without my knowledge? Can they quote what I say without asking, without even identifying themselves? My gut tells me no. Not, again, as a matter of law. Just as a matter of basic decency. A casual dinner isn’t a public event in the way a speech is, even if there was an open invitation to attend. Both are public, but one is more public than the other, and I’d consider it really inappropriate for someone to report on a meal the way they’d report on a speech.

And here’s something interesting: I absolutely wouldn’t have a problem with someone who was at the dinner tweeting something I said. I think that’s because the audience for such a tweet strikes me as semi-private in the same way as the dinner itself — you can talk to your friends about what happens at dinner, so why shouldn’t you use low-volume social media to do the same thing?

I could go on like this indefinitely, laying out hypotheticals and trying to tease out the underlying principles. But that wouldn’t be particularly helpful, because ultimately I’m not trying to establish rules. There isn’t consensus on this stuff, and there isn’t going to be. Twitter is a public space where people sometimes have private or semi-private conversations, and sometimes inserting yourself into those conversations is sometimes going to be okay and sometimes it’s going to be a real jerk move.

So how can you avoid being a jerk in such situations? I can think of a few issues to bear in mind:

1. Audience.

Is the public you’re bringing the material to much larger than the one it was intended for? Is it culturally distant from the original? Is it likely to be hostile? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, take a moment to mull before signal-boosting.

2. Author.

Is the person you’re boosting a public figure? A longtime tweeter? An adult? How many followers do they have? How much information do they share about themselves in their Twitter profile? What do you know about their expectations of privacy?

3. Content.

Is the material you’re thinking about broadcasting a goofy joke or something more personal? Most people will be a lot happier to see their Divergent macro on Buzzfeed than their ugly opinions about their grandmother’s birthday party.

4. Consequences.

What are the chances that the person you’re shoving up on the soapbox will suffer because of what you’ve done? Are they likely to be stalked or flamed? Could they lose a job or get kicked out of their house or flunk a class? Might you be sharing information with the world that they haven’t shared with their parents?

5. Motive.

Why are you sharing this stuff? Is it for their benefit? Is it to embarrass them? Is it for page-clicks and page-clicks alone? What’s the goal? What are you trying to achieve?

6. Consent.

Do you have permission to share the material? Would you likely get it if you asked? If you do, or would, have consent, is that consent grounded in the same understanding of the potential consequences of publication that you have?

These are the kind of questions I ask myself when I’m deciding whether to retweet something, or to write about something I’ve stumbled across on social media. None of them are decisive in isolation, and most of them don’t lend themselves to simple rule-making. But taken together they give me a sense of whether what I’ve got in mind is justifiable.

And yeah, I use a similar calculation when I’m evaluating the decisions that other authors make. And while I can respect people who weigh the answers differently than I do, if you’re not engaging with issues like these at all? Yeah, I kind of think you’re a jerk.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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