Mustang News Editorial Board
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Cal Poly’s Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) is threatening you — yes, you — with an ultimatum. Keep quiet about what’s happening in the upcoming ASI election, or they’ll pull the trigger pointed at the candidates.
Sound unfair? You’re right.
Per an overbroad and misguided ASI policy, any “non-verbal public display or distribution of specific information about any ASI candidate” is grounds to punish them. It doesn’t matter if it’s the candidate putting up a campaign poster next to Dexter Lawn or you posting about them on Facebook — they can and have been held accountable.
Two candidates learned that all too well this week when ASI fined them each $100 because they or their campaign staff spoke to our reporters, who later published their quotes. All parties involved knew about the potential violation. On top of that, all four candidates could face additional punishment because a subsequent article reporting on those fines included all the candidates’ names — another violation.
The ridiculousness of this policy is perhaps most clear in the case of agricultural business junior Jake Rogers, who, knowing the election code, chose not to speak to Mustang News. Even though neither him nor anyone on his campaign staff spoke with a reporter, ASI said he’s been in violation of the rules at least three times now, simply because we wrote he was running for president. ASI chose not to fine him for the first violation, but has not yet made a decision regarding the other violations.
This policy not only punishes students for things completely outside of their control, but it discourages open debate about candidates and campus issues. And there’s an argument to be made that it’s unconstitutional.
What the rule proposes to do is impossible to control: The entire world, from Mustang News to The New York Times, can’t write down who’s running for ASI student government at Cal Poly. Needless to say, it’s out of the candidates’ hands if someone wants to write that they’re running, and it’s unfair to punish the student because of actions someone else took.
In theory, this could be leveraged against a candidate by his or her opponents. If someone on Candidate A’s campaign staff wanted to take down Candidate B, all they would have to do is write 30 blog posts about Candidate B’s intent to run. At $100 a pop, that’s a quick way to put their target $3,000 in debt.
Yes, the ASI Recruitment and Development Committee can determine if these blog posts — or any other speech — constitute a violation of the rules. But that’s a lot of power to put in the hands of a small group of students. It lets them choose what the Cal Poly community can and cannot write about the ASI elections, an idea that should conjure up Orwellian images.
Besides it being slightly unnerving that this committee gets to decide what fines are levied for your Facebook or blog posts, it could also be considered unconstitutional.
In order for the government (and ASI is part of the California state government) to limit speech in time, place or manner, it must be content-neutral, meaning the context of the writing itself can’t be a determining factor in whether or not the government allows it.
The way ASI’s committee can choose which writings are OK is clearly in violation of this requirement. Their targeting of Mustang News articles is unfair to both the candidates, who want to spread their message through mass media, and to our reporters, who must choose between covering the news or saving their fellow students from potential fines. Candidates can speak to whoever they want, as long as that person won’t write down what they say. According to the language of the policy, candidates could say what they want on Mustang News TV, but as soon as their words are written down, they are in violation of the policy.
But beyond the way ASI can choose what can and cannot be said, the policy on its own is also against the spirit of the First Amendment.
Per the Constitution, individuals can exercise their free speech however they choose, provided the government doesn’t have a compelling reason for blocking it.
What ASI has said is the rule makes it “fair” that all candidates have the same amount of time to campaign.
But in actuality, it disadvantages the candidate who’s known for months or years he or she wants to run for office. That individual can argue they are a more dedicated candidate because of their foresight, and they should be able to let campus know about their early intention to run. Forcing them to wait just because other people are still making up their mind doesn’t make sense.
In addition to limiting students’ ability to know who decided to run for office when, this rule also discourages debate that could shape the outcome of an election. Active campaigning — when candidates are allowed to talk freely and the world can write about them — is only a 10-day period before the vote, not nearly long enough to fully debate the issues.
With fees increasing, state financial support going down, semesters just over the horizon and off-campus policy restrictions in the forefront of campus news, it is near impossible for a candidate to communicate their stances on all the issues in 10 days — and give the campus the chance to debate their positions in a meaningful way.
And because of the rule, debate over the rule itself is discouraged. When Mustang News wrote a story bringing to light the fines handed down for violating the rule, that article prompted another violation of it. And when we reported on that violation, a third violation occurred.
When contacted by reporters, candidates were reluctant to speak about the rule — and why shouldn’t they be? If they speak out against it, they open themselves up to be fined.
This is silencing debate at its most obvious extreme.
With these rules in place, the candidates should consider if their fundamental rights are being violated, or if they want to run at all in a system where they can be punished for what others are doing.
In a blog post, our editor-in-chief explained in a detailed way why we chose to continue publishing, even though it resulted in more violations for the candidates. But even without reading his opinion, the facts are simple: This election policy needs changing. It’s unfair to the candidates and our reporters, but most importantly, it’s unfair to the voting student body.
This represents the opinion of the Mustang News editorial board, which includes J.J. Jenkins, Carly Rickards, Sean McMinn and Olivia DeGennaro.