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Cal Poly Student Government Changes Rules to Allow Some Early Candidate Speech, But Not Enough

Following widespread criticism, the Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) has revised its election policies to allow students running for ASI positions to be quoted in the media outside of the “active campaigning period,” which begins just 10 days before elections. Previously, students were prohibited from being identified as candidates in written materials prior to the beginning of the active campaigning period, which began on April 13 this year.

ASI’s Recruitment and Development Committee also waived the fines it imposed on ASI presidential candidates who were named in the campus newspaper, Mustang News, in late February. Articles in Mustang News reporting on the fines constituted additional violations for the candidates, prompting more criticism about a policy that already hindered students’ ability to be sufficiently informed before voting.

But despite the policy revision and fine waiver, student speech about the election is still at risk. According to Mustang News, there are still limitations on candidates’ involvement with the media before elections:

Candidates and their teams are still banned from “perpetuating” news articles about their campaigns prior to 10 days before the election. Perpetuating is defined as sharing articles, commenting on them online or distributing hard copies of the article.

If candidates perpetuate media containing their names, they will be subject to a tiered penalty system. The first offense is a warning, the second is a $100 fine, the third is a $200 fine and the fourth is a $300 fine. A fourth offense also could lead to the Recruitment and Development Committee meeting to discuss recommending the candidates’ disqualification to the Board of Directors.

The prohibition on commenting on articles is particularly worrisome, as it deprives candidates of the opportunity to correct misinformation. It could also prevent candidates from speaking about the issues at the core of the election, if those issues are discussed in an article that also names the candidates. Further, the fact that violators incur a hefty fine might make candidates even more inclined to self-censor than they would be if they could be subject only to a non-monetary punishment. It is unclear how students have the authority to fine other students. Besides that, though, as I noted in last week’s discussion of election policies at Cal Poly and the University of Alabama, a system where students enforce speech restrictions against other students creates a high risk of those restrictions being abused.

Meaningful democratic participation depends in part on candidates’ ability to engage in ongoing discussions about key issues. Effectively shutting candidates out of a conversation once they are named deprives voters of potentially critical information and allows opponents of a particular candidate to silence that person simply by identifying them as a candidate.

Mustang News reported last week that legal counsel recommended that the Recruitment and Development Committee consider further revisions to its policies:

The counsel’s opinion, which is expected to be officially distributed in a press release Thursday afternoon, ruled other active campaigning restrictions, such as prohibiting written advertisements before the ten-day window, were constitutional.

One possible change could be a “media day” outside the active campaigning window. Candidates would be free to speak to media during these press conferences, and would otherwise remain silent.

Again, the proposed change would be a step in the right direction, but it would still limit candidates’ ability to respond to ongoing discussions and correct any misinformation pertaining to their positions. Allowing candidates to make a statement and halt conversation thereafter (to be restarted 10 days before the election) does not allow ample opportunity for the open debate and generous information-sharing that should precede an election. ASI should allow all candidates for office to speak openly to the press and online without being subject to fines or punishment.

Check back to The Torch for updates.

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