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“It has some consequences that are probably indefensible in terms of violating free speech and the press,” Assistant political science professor Michael Latner said.

Sean McMinn

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An Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) policy permits verbal campaigning for student body president, but any written communication — by the candidate or anyone else — identifying them as a candidate before April 13 results in a violation of the election code.

That’s the rule that led to ASI fining two of its presidential candidates earlier this week, and a subsequent flurry of social media posts decrying Mustang News’ coverage of the fines. The rule has raised questions of constitutionality from legal experts and others tuned in to the political process, but student government officials maintain it’s necessary to ensure fair elections.

The two fines came because of an ASI rule that says candidates are in violation of election code if someone non-verbally declares their candidacy before open campaigning begins on April 13, which is 10 days prior to election day.

Civil engineering junior Connor Paquin, who is running for president, and political science senior Daniel Wasta, who is managing political science senior Joi Sullivan’s bid for office, spoke to Mustang News even though they were aware of the non-verbal campaigning rule. They were both fined $100, though agricultural business junior Jake Rogers, who Mustang News also reported was running for office, was not fined because no one involved with his campaign consented to an interview.

Computer engineering junior Will Blumhardt, the fourth candidate, interviewed with Mustang News earlier this week, and has not yet been fined because of it. His case will be reviewed at the next meeting of the Recruitment and Development Committee, which is scheduled for Friday.

But Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said punishing a candidate for speaking to a newspaper limits the candidates’ ability to openly discuss campus issues.

“Forcing people to pay them if they talk to the paper is going to be a disincentive to run,” Goldstein said.

ASI Recruitment and Development Committee Chair and biological sciences senior Cale Reid said rather than disincentivizing people from running, the rule creates a balanced playing field for candidates.

Allowing the same amount of time for everyone to campaign prevents a single student from beginning to promote themselves before other candidates, he said.

California State Student Association executive director Miles Nevin said this kind of policy is common among other campuses in the California State University system. They often exist, he said, to ensure fairness and provide oversight where student government officials can review cases to determine what is and is not a violation.

“What it’s designed to do is to set a parameter for all the students running in the election to stay within a time period, and to level the playing field for the election process,” Nevin said.

Reid met with Mustang News Editor-in-Chief and business administration senior J.J. Jenkins on Wednesday to discuss how the rule will be enforced when it comes to media writing about the candidates. According to Reid, candidates can speak to anyone they’d like — including reporters — but when someone writes down the candidate’s intention to run, it becomes a violation of the rules, left to the committee’s discretion.

Reid told Jenkins just as journalists are trained to be objective, “the Board of Directors and Recruitment and Development committee are elected to the seats because people trust we’ll be fair in our judgment.”

Prior to his meeting with Jenkins, Reid talked to Dean of Students Jean DeCosta. He said DeCosta advised him to continue enforcing the election code, despite the new complications surrounding it.

Several of those complications came to light online Tuesday, when discussion of the violations resulted in more violations and more potential for disciplinary action.

The first unintentional violation came when Mustang News published a story reporting on the fines assessed to Sullivan and Paquin. That article included the names of all candidates running for president, an action Reid said puts them all in violation of the rules again. A subsequent article reporting on that violation led to another, though it is unclear if ASI will choose to fine candidates for each of those cases.

Then, on social media, more people began writing about the candidates. On Reddit, a chain of three consecutive posters listed the names of all the candidates, seemingly daring ASI to fine them for the posts.

“Connor Paquin, Joi Sullivan, Jake Rogers and Will Blumhardt running for ASI president,” wrote user Jdban. “Does this post cost them each $100 again?”

And below the article itself, an anonymous commenter wrote:

“What Mustang News has taught me … Joi Sullivan, Jake Rogers, Connor Paquin and Will Blumhardt for ASI President. Fined again.”

ASI spokesperson Michelle Broom said Wednesday she did not know if posts on social media would be grounds for punishing the candidates, since it is a “fairly new variable.” If the same policies for non-verbal writings by Mustang News, however, apply to online comments, it would mark nearly half a dozen more violations.

Political science professor Michael Latner, who teaches a class at Cal Poly about political campaigning, said it is not uncommon for laws to limit campaigning time periods. What’s “bizarre” about the ramifications of Cal Poly’s case, Latner said, is the policy also limits the press’ ability to write about campaigns.

“It has some consequences that are probably indefensible in terms of violating free speech and the press,” Latner said.

The 10-day period allowed for campaigning is too short to effectively get candidates’ message out to students using the media, said Trapper Byrne, an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Byrne said there are more direct approaches ASI could take to ensure fairness in the elections.

“People don’t want to be bored to death with campaign coverage, but 10 days seems like a compressed time period for coverage,” Byrne said.

During an election, the student press informs voters what views candidates hold, added Will Creeley, the director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Because of the way ASI’s policy punishes students for speaking to the press, it “robs the student body of the ability to fully assess their plans,” Creeley said in a statement to Mustang News.

“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,” Creeley said. “Punishing students for speaking to the press is inherently problematic, especially when those students are running for office.”

Benjy Egel and Kyle McCarty contributed to this story. 

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