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Ingber ’15: UCS should stay focused on Brown

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is undoubtedly one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in recent memory. In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down limits on independent expenditures for corporations and labor unions as unconstitutional. The opinions penned by the court were vociferous — a normally affable then-Associate Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens even read part of his ninety-page dissent from the bench. He argued stridently that the majority had changed the facts of the case in order to change the law.

But I am not writing in order to weigh in on the legitimacy of the court’s decision. I am writing because I recently received an email from the Brown Political Forum stating it will be pushing the Undergraduate Council of Students to issue a referendum against the court’s decision in Citizens United.

It is not a surprise that Brown students overwhelmingly disapprove of the court’s decision in the case. However, I am troubled by the idea of UCS initiating referenda regarding national politics, especially issues that do not pertain directly to student life. The role of UCS is to advocate for students in the decision-making organs of the University and to defend the interests of students in University affairs, not to make sweeping stances about how Brown students identify politically. Not only will such a referendum portray Brown’s student body as monolithic, I also believe it to be both outside the jurisdiction of UCS and, most importantly, a distraction from the real responsibilities of our elected representatives on this campus.

The first section of UCS’ purpose, as stated in its constitution, is to “represent students and the interests of students in all matters of university life and all areas of university operations.” Our student government should remain focused on the affairs of our university. Its charge is to look out for our interests as students and not necessarily as individuals living in the United States. The Brown Political Forum’s request that it issue such a referendum on Citizens United is asking UCS to step outside its mandate. This is not to say that UCS need not weigh in on issues of national concern that affect our lives as students, but I don’t see how Citizens United affects us in that capacity.

But more important is that this request will require a diversion of attention from matters of university life. If the Council is preoccupied with discussion over Citizens United, it will devote less time to things that affect our daily lives at Brown. There are a lot of political issues that are important to different groups of Brown students, and issuing a referendum on Citizens United would open the door to having to weigh in on any issue that Brown students find important — which, as you can imagine, is a long list. At that point, who will get to decide which national issues receive UCS attention?

Needless to say, a condemnation of Citizens United would have little impact on the course of campaign finance reform. Brown students are far less educated in constitutional jurisprudence than the nine who made the decision in 2010, and it is undeniable that the judicial system — especially the Supreme Court — is not often influenced by popular persuasions of the day. Brown students would be smarter to form petitions and policy alternatives outside of UCS to present to legislators. This is the best way to reflect the overwhelming frustration with Citizens United on this campus, not through some UCS dictum.

We are at a crucial juncture in Brown’s governance. In the wake of the Corporation’s decision not to divest from coal and the approval of President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan, many students have started to think deeply and critically about the role students should play in the University’s decision making. If students want more of a voice in how Brown operates, then they should consider the most effective way to make that happen. UCS is charged with advocating for student voices and input with regards to Brown’s administration. The moment we ask UCS to focus on national political issues that do not affect our lives at Brown is the moment we diminish our own voices in the operations of our University.