Ward 1 Aldermanic candidate Nick Shalek ’05 has changed his online petitioning system after his opponent, Ward 1 Alderwoman Rebecca Livengood ’07, and University information officials said Shalek’s system violated Yale regulations and federal laws when it was first released on Monday.
Shalek used Yale’s Central Authentication Service to collect signatures for his online petition, which asks that University President Richard Levin take certain steps to protect students from crime. But because Yale is a non-profit organization, political candidates may not legally use University resources to advance their campaigns. Shalek stopped using the server after the administration informed him of the violation, and the University is now considering tightening security to CAS.
Shalek said he was aware that he could not use the server, but his staffer, who set up the petition, was not.
“It was a basic mistake that we quickly corrected,” Shalek said.
CAS is an open source — Shalek’s staffer was able to access it without cooperation from the University — though nobody operating the system can gather submitted personal information, such as passwords.
Chief Information Officer Philip Long said Shalek’s campaign law violation was the first of its kind and has led the administration to rethink the current open access to CAS.
“Though erroneous, such a link might be perceived by some as an endorsement,” Long said. “Naturally, that worries us.”
Yale may now begin requiring pre-registration to access CAS, Long said. The change could prove costly and complicated, he said, and might inconvenience some student organizations and groups that provide services to Yale.
“It does seem a shame,” Long said. “For efficiency and convenience, we haven’t required prior registration … but the service has to be protected.”
Ward 1 Alderwoman Rebecca Livengood ’07, Shalek’s opponent in the aldermanic race, said his use of the Yale server was irresponsible.
“Yale as an institution is conspicuously non-profit and therefore can’t be involved in political campaigns,” she said. “If Nick didn’t understand that students would have to log in through Yale CAS, that is very troubling.”
But Shalek said he thinks Livengood’s campaign may be playing politics with the issue.
“If Livengood’s supporters want to attack us, they should attack us on the issues.”
The e-mail Shalek sent out to undergraduates requested that students sign a petition at www.makeyalesafer.com, a page on Shalek’s campaign Web site. A link on that page routed users through Yale’s CAS, which required their password and Net I.D. to verify that they were Yale students. The page now asks users to sign the petition by sending an e-mail.
Livengood said even if Shalek’s staffer had made a mistake, Shalek should not have circulated the petition without knowing the details of the authentication process.
Allisa Stollwerk ’06, president of the Yale College Democrats, which endorsed Livengood this fall, was one of the students who complained to the administration about the petition.
“This isn’t about politics,” she said. “It’s about an incredibly important and powerful nonprofit being used with a political petition.”
Yale bears some responsibility for the violation, said Bruce Hopkins, an expert in nonprofit law.
“You can argue that the University has an obligation to monitor situations like this and make sure its server isn’t used in this fashion,” Hopkins said. “There is not any tolerance for incidental activity or mistaken activity.”
The theory behind federal laws governing non profit organizations, he explained, is that their tax-exempt status is tantamount to a government subsidy. Since the government cannot support political campaigns, neither can the organizations it subsidizes. But, as a practical matter, it is unlikely that the government would threaten to tax Yale for such a minor infraction, Hopkins said.