Last month, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student government official successfully prevented all three candidates for student government president from appearing on a radio show produced by UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, by threatening sanctions should they appear. Sadly, although UCLA’s student Judicial Board ruled last week that the threat wasn’t valid, the Board failed to take action to prevent future warnings that are bound to chill speech.
Here’s what happened: On May 5, UCLA student and Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) Election Board Chair Anthony Padilla threatened sanctions for candidates for student government who participated in “Long Story Short,” a radio program produced by the Daily Bruin. All three candidates for USAC president were invited, and all three declined to appear after Padilla’s warning. The Daily Bruin petitioned the Judicial Board to clarify the rules on student media coverage of elections, and the Board released its decision on the case last Tuesday. The Judicial Board declined to take action against the Election Board even while acknowledging that Padilla was wrong in asserting jurisdiction over “Long Story Short.”
UCLA’s Election Code states that the Election Board must approve all debates among USAC candidates and that such debates must include all candidates and an Election Board member. But as the Daily Bruin editorial board explained in the paper and in its arguments to the Judicial Board, the Election Board’s interpretation of what constitutes a “debate” is far too broad, precluding necessary news coverage and even day-to-day interactions:
In the case of Monday’s planned interview [on “Long Story Short,”] each candidate would have had a chance to answer questions regarding their candidacy separately. In a closely moderated setting, there would be nothing constituting a debate or even any on-air interactions between candidates.
But even if there had been an opportunity for candidates to interact, Padilla would still be in the wrong, using his authority over debates to intervene. His loose interpretation of the code would essentially prevent two candidates from being in the same room because there may be an opportunity for exchange.
Daily Bruin editor-in-chief Jillian Beck and fellow staff members spoke on “Long Story Short” in lieu of the candidates. “This was never going to be a debate. … This is a news piece, even though it’s with a radio medium,” Beck said of the program. “It’s functionally censorship to try to regulate … the Daily Bruin’s coverage.” The Election Board may regulate debates and media advertising or paid programming, she said, “but that was neither of these.”
Opinion editor Eitan Arom further clarified that the Election Board’s broad interpretation of the “debate clause” just wasn’t feasible or practical. “Their argument is that if you’re going to have on [the show] one position, you have to have on all of them. … Let’s say I were to write an article about, for example, the Financial Supports Commission race. That would mean that I have to talk to all 31 candidates because I’m talking to one of them.” Arom also noted that the Election Board’s interference is suspect considering campus media is overseen by the communications board, which is not part of USAC.
Arom argued in front of the Judicial Board on behalf of the Daily Bruin on May 19, and the Board released its memorandum on the issue on May 27. A full decision is set to be released within the next week. The full decision may bring greater clarity, but at least for now, the memorandum offers no concrete protections for student media:
The JUDICIAL BOARD has ruled that the USA Election Board does not have authority or jurisdiction over non-paid media appearances or coverage of USAC election candidates. However, the Election Board retains their jurisdictional obligation and right to inform election candidates of possible sanctions to which they are subject, though the JUDICIAL BOARD recognizes that the Election Board was not clear in communicating with the election candidates about the circumstances of the sanctions.
In other words, Padilla’s statements to candidates that they may be sanctioned for participating in “Long Story Short” was incorrect, but Election Board members may (and should) warn candidates about sanctions that could result from media appearances. It is not clear from the memorandum whether the Judicial Board plans on implementing any safeguards to ensure that warnings from the Election Board are accurate, in order not to discourage speech that the Election Board in fact has no authority to punish. But without the threat of sanctions for inaccurate warnings to candidates, there is nothing to stop the Election Board from making similar statements next election season, chilling candidates’ speech and impeding student media coverage again.
Arom responded to the decision in a column for the Daily Bruin, arguing the facts of the case highlight oversights by the Judicial Board:
In an email to … a candidate for USAC president, Padilla wrote “you and the candidates in attendance will not be able to hold this debate without being subject to sanctions.” In the same email, he even cited the passage of the election code he thought they would violate in the segment.
At the hearing for the petition, Election Board External Relations Chair Gabrielle Scheder-Bieschin argued that Padilla couldn’t answer the hypothetical question of whether sanctions would be appropriate and was therefore only informing [the candidate] that sanctions were theoretically possible at any time and for any course of action.
The argument that candidates are perpetually “subject to sanctions,” reflected in the Judicial Board’s ruling, is a bizarre and selective interpretation of the facts.
[Two candidates] both testified that they felt as if attending the radio show could and would earn them sanctions, and that they would have gone on the show if Padilla had given the interview his blessing.
If USAC candidates are continually told that they might be subject to sanctions, even with the Judicial Board’s concession that those warnings might not be accurate, the candidates will likely choose not to contribute to news stories for fear of being punished, just as they did in May. Consequently, many candidates will avoid communicating with media and feel safe only when participating in Election Board-sanctioned debates. If student government candidates avoid media, the UCLA student body will be deprived of opportunities to hear more in-depth discussion on issues relevant on campus. The Daily Bruin and other media will be unable to report fully on election news and will be limited in its sources, to the detriment of the UCLA community.
Next year’s Election Board must ensure that all candidates for office and all student media have clear guidelines as to what will result in sanctions, and it should craft new Election Code provisions that will allow student media to provide all relevant information to students as they make their voting decisions. If it does not do so, the Judicial Board and the Election Board should be embarrassed at their decision to leave all election-related news subject to a vague and broad threat of sanctions.