Planned Sarah Palin CSU speech stirs California protest

Students and other critics want to know if Sarah Palin will be paid $100,000 or more for her CSU speech. Is the state university – part of California government – obliged to reveal the confidential contract?

California State Stanislaus business student Jacklyn Graham walks past the University Student Union. Sarah Palin is scheduled to speak at the university in June.

A controversy is erupting over Sarah Palin's June speaking engagement at a campus of California State University.

A student protest group and other critics want the university to reveal how much they're paying her, which they suspect might be more than $100,000. A professor has started a Facebook gripe group. And a state senator is pressuring university officials to disclose Ms. Palin’s compensation or be prosecuted under state law.

The CSU speech, held at the Stanislaus campus in Turlock, will celebrate the university’s 50th year. CSU officials have publicly stated they cannot release Palin’s compensation due to a confidentiality term in her contract. But Sen. Leland Yee (D) of San Francisco, who chairs of the committee on public records and open meeting laws, says the public – including students – have a legal right to the information.

The incident has ignited debate over the role of university speakers and free speech.

Controversial speakers stir the pot

“Most sensible people understand that colleges should give a forum to controversial speakers in order to make students and others think and react,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “We have a ‘stirring-the-pot’ role to play in society. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay big bucks in tough times to give controversial speakers a platform. Expenses are one thing; a big fat speaking fee isn’t free speech.”

On campus, the vitriol erupted almost as soon as Palin’s engagement was announced.

“We are demanding that the CSU Foundation disclose the full amount paid for Mrs. Palin's speaking fee and all other expenses associated with the contract that both parties have entered,” said Alicia Lewis, CSU Stanislaus student leader, in a statement.

Zoology professor Patrick Kelly, who started the anti-Palin Facebook page, says, “The Foundation’s board of directors are not only dismissive of the need to involve faculty, staff and students in the selection of the keynote speaker for the 50th anniversary gala, they apparently are also tone deaf to the mission and purpose of our university.”

“Do they understand how disrespectful and damaging this secretly-conducted pursuit of celebrity and controversy is to the faculty, staff, students, graduates and legacy of CSU Stanislaus?” asked Professor Kelly in a statement.

State politics involved

The controversy has found its way to the state capitol.

“CSU Stanislaus officials sought out Sarah Palin, negotiated her contract behind closed doors, and are now welcoming her to our public university, yet they think they are above the law in disclosing to the public the cost of her appearance,” said Senator Yee, in a statement. A law authored by Yee in 2008 states that regardless of any contract term to the contrary, a contract between a private entity and a state or local agency is subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public records.

Yee says if the university’s administration has documentation of the Palin contract – which he claims “would be logical” considering the foundation is fully staffed by public employees within the administration – then state law would require the release of such information at the request of a member of the public.

“State law is explicitly clear that such confidentiality clauses hold no legal bearing,” he says. “If the CSU administration has documentation of this compensation contract, then they need to immediately disclose it. Students and members of the public deserve and have a right to view this contract.”

Add another speaker for balance?

Others say the speaker should be broadly acceptable to avoid spoiling the day for some grads and their families. Still others say an opposing speaker could balance the festivities.

"The Palin invite is good," says Robert Langran, political science professor at Villanova University. "It would also be good for the school to bring in another speaker with the opposite point of view to try to achieve a balance."

Whatever the objections, many say they are exacerbated by tough economic times. A national day of action saw student rallies that began in California spread nationwide in protest of cuts in education. There were campus strikes and sit-ins.

“Our students are being slammed by enormous fee hikes while cuts mean they can’t get the classes they need,” says Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association. “This resistance to transparency is another slap in the face. CSU executives are at the top of these so-called auxiliaries, and they need to show more respect for the people they supposedly serve.”

CSU Stanislaus President Hamid Shirvani has declined to comment about Palin's appearance, referring questions to Matt Swanson, president of the university foundation which invited Palin.

"I am thrilled that we're in a country where we can exercise our free speech," Swanson told the Sacramento Bee.

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