At least two student-candidates for student government at California Polytechnic State University were fined $100 each for talking to reporters about their respective campaigns, violating a curiously draconian election code.
The election code of Cal Poly’s student government, Associated Students, Inc., prohibits candidates from actively campaigning until within 10 days of the election. The code defines active campaigning as “a non-verbal public display or distribution of specific information (physical or electronic) about any ASI candidate.”
This even includes newspaper articles written about the candidates, the ASI election committee determined.
Such an article appeared in the Mustang News, the university’s student newspaper. Several students were publicly identified as candidates for office and provided quotes for the article–triggering the $100 fines.
The fines provoked quite an outcry.
“If this sounds completely stupid to you, join the crowd,” wrote Joe Tarica, a local columnist.
The stupidity did not stop there, however. The fines appear to trigger whenever any publication mentions the candidates in any capacity–even without their permission–such that news stories about the fining of the candidates trigger more fines, and so on.
J.J. Jenkins, editor-in-chief of the Mustang News, gave an unbelievable account of the cyclical fining to The College Fix:
I’m communicating non-verbally now. If I were to write the names of the four candidates for ASI President, it would put them in violation of the election code and a fine could be levied. In fact, if you were to write a comment or tweet naming a student in connection with “ASI presidential candidate,” you too could open them up to a violation. …
We ran a story about those fines Tuesday, and ASI declared the candidates to be in violation of the code again. We printed a story about the second violation because it was newsworthy — predictably resulting in a third violation.
It’s a vicious cycle. We get it, and so does ASI. But it highlights an infringement on the candidates’ right to free speech, the right to speak with a newspaper and have their words distributed to a wider audience.
The result is a chilling effect on students’ speech.
“Consequently, it has put us in the unenviable position of reporting news knowing it could result in fines to innocent candidates,” wrote Jenkins. “But if we tailor our news coverage to what ASI deems appropriate, we aren’t doing our job as independent investigators of facts on this campus.”
Thanks to the public outcry, ASI has suspended the fines while it confers with university legal counsel regarding whether the election code is actually enforceable as written.
The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether it believes its students’ free speech rights are being violated.