Add this to the ever-growing list of sneaky tactics employed to suppress student speech: At California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and the University of Alabama (UA), student speech about upcoming student government elections may violate election codes at their respective schools. Content-based censorship at public universities like Cal Poly and UA always raises constitutional questions, but it is especially alarming when students are prevented from engaging in speech that allows the student body to identify, vet, and advocate for candidates for office—steps necessary for the schools’ democratic processes.
Cal Poly’s Associated Students, Inc. (ASI), tasked with distributing student fees and administering other programs at the university, prohibits identifying candidates for student body president in writing before April 13. The rule was ostensibly enacted to ensure fairness, but it allows only 10 days for candidates to campaign, severely limiting the time students have to learn about candidates and make their decisions. Further, candidates identified must pay a $100 fee for violations, meaning that rather than level the playing field, the rule could simply serve to limit early campaigning to students with more money to spend.
But it gets much worse.
Cal Poly’s Mustang News student newspaper spoke with four presidential candidates two weeks ago and reported last week that the previous article constituted policy violations for each of the candidates, resulting in fines for two of them. Things took a turn for the utterly ridiculous, though, when all four candidates again were determined to have violated the policy again because of the additional news coverage, which happened without their involvement. An update to the article on that development confirms that that article, itself, constitutes a third violation for the students. In other words, every time student journalists try to relay news about candidates and about the school’s own rules, candidates are charged with an additional rule violation. According to that last article, Recruitment and Development Chair Cale Reid conceded that the rule could lead to a “cycle of violations that comes as a result of the related news coverage.”
My colleagues Will Creeley and Robert Shibley both commented on the problems inherent in this system. In speaking with the Mustang News, Will noted:
The student government’s efforts to “level the playing field” for candidates may be well-intentioned, but students should be very wary of the means it has chosen to do so. Punishing students for speaking to the press is inherently problematic, especially when those students are running for office.
Talking to FoxNews.com, Robert further pointed out:
Students, like all Americans, depend on the press for information. Instituting rules that guarantee students will have less information about what's happening on campus is a very bad idea and teaches students the wrong lessons about free speech in our democratic society.
Meanwhile, at the University of Alabama, candidates for the Student Government Association (SGA) are subject to their own list of restrictions that some students argue perpetuates the century-old pattern of Greek candidates dominating SGA elections—particularly Theta Nu Epsilon, dubbed “The Machine.” Nathan James cited some of these rules in an article for student newspaper The Crimson White last month:
[C]andidates aren’t allowed to leave fliers in university buildings, or distribute T-shirts before the day of the election, or have their own websites, or announce their candidacy without the University’s permission, or announce their candidacy in an event lasting more than one hour. Additionally, remember the $600 campaign limit for executive offices, and make sure to submit every shred of your campaign material for University approval 24 hours before posting.
Will’s and Robert’s remarks on the situation at Cal Poly are apt here as well: Several of these requirements and limitations severely undercut candidates’ ability to campaign and voters’ ability to learn about each candidate.
The election rules are causing a controversy this month after small group of students created and posted in residence halls flyers urging students to vote for four non-Machine-affiliated candidates. Co-chair of the Elections Board Madalyn Vaughn argued that that violated election rules, and that the creators of the poster could face disciplinary action for posting in residence halls against school policy (UA’s Election Manual states that candidates may post campaign materials on “designated public bulletin boards” in residence halls) and for “fraud [and] tampering with an election.” The manual states that non-candidates can be censured by the Elections Board or the Board can “[p]ursue disciplinary action with the Office of the Dean of Students or Student Judicial Affairs.”
That a student-run board can initiate disciplinary proceedings according to its own rules exacerbates the risk that election-related speech will be unduly silenced. And although the school may place some restrictions on posted materials, UA should aim to leave open ample avenues for student expression—particularly speech essential to a meaningful election process, whether it comes from candidates directly or from their supporters.
FIRE will keep an eye out for developments at these universities. In the meantime, all students concerned with free expression should encourage their schools to enact “green light” policies that allow for a full range of student expression during election seasons.