Free Speech for SGA Candidates

The SGA at this school has some of the most restrictive election laws that I’ve ever seen, and they’ve turned away candidates who might otherwise add to the process. Even though he clearly violated the existing rules, it’s patently absurd that Fif Aganga ’13 was disqualified from this year’s SGA Presidential election. If he broke the law, then the law must be changed. Today—election day, conveniently—I call on both candidates for President and on the candidates for Senate to agree to rewrite the election bylaws before next year to remove the onerous and unnecessary limitations that last year’s bill imposed on free speech.

I did not plan on voting for Fif; his platform was nonexistent and his candidacy seemed like an elaborate practical joke. While the SGA’s decision to impeach him was poor politics and only played into his joke, their decision there was warranted, as he missed a number of important meetings—including the contentious debate about EdLiberty, which he instructed a proxy to vote for without listening to the arguments on either side.

That said, he had every right to run for President; he was disqualified merely for responding to his impeachment in these pages, in an article published a mere eight hours before the start of ‘legal’ campaigning. This is hardly the first time that a candidate has suffered these problems. Last year another candidate was thrown out for sending text messages on the day of voting. Both of these are excessive restrictions on free speech and the electoral process in general. If the current members of SGA want to know why much of the student body doesn’t take them seriously, it’s overly bureaucratic moves like this.

Under the current law, a candidate can hardly breathe a word about his or her campaign until 4:30 pm two weeks before the day of voting, and cannot campaign on the day of voting. This includes any emails, text messages, or Facebook messages on the days of voting. How does banning these improve the political process? It doesn’t; it privileges a candidate who can build up a Vin Recca-style political machine and who can use surrogates to get out the vote, and it empowers the election rules committee to toss anyone whom they deem crosses a line.

It’s one thing to ban candidates from plastering posters across the campus several weeks before the election, although it would probably do more to undermine such a candidate’s cause than anything. It’s perfectly reasonable to prevent the incumbents from abusing all-student emails, as some of you will remember from last Spring, when a member of the cabinet sent out a nakedly self-serving message the night before the vote reminding the student body of Reilly O’Rourke’s accomplishments. And we all know how that worked out. It’s also perfectly fair to set limits on campaign expenditures to prevent wealthy candidates from overwhelming the process. But we don’t have to uphold Citizens United here at Middlebury; money and speech are not the same. To place limits on the speech of these candidates, in person and in press, hurts the process and restricts the candidate pool.

This should not be taken as a criticism of any of the current candidates, by the way. This is meant neither to disparage nor to endorse, for what my opinion would be worth. But I do want to remind you all to go online and vote today. I have the right to do that. Unfortunately, under the current law, neither Charlie Arnowitz nor Ryan Kim has that right.

The time has come to reform the current election laws. It’s only been a year since the SGA last updated them in the wake of a scandal, and we’ve already seen the damage. One of the first things that our new SGA President must do is to restore free speech to the elections process.

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One thought on “Free Speech for SGA Candidates

  1. Zach,

    As a candidate, I totally agree with you about the absurdity of our campaign rules. I flat out wish Fif were on the ballot this spring, and think the system is a sham for supporting a relatively arbitrary set of hard and fast rules that permit such rapid and unquestionable disqualification. I agree with you: Fif should have been disqualified, but are the rules that dq’d him even proper to begin with?

    I know that the Senate purportedly represents the voices and desires of the student body, but I can assure you that the vast majority of the student body was unaware of the change in election rules. I know I was, at the time of its amendment. I do, however, believe in the necessity of having some loose form of guidelines for a SGA race, like spending limits, but I frankly feel that the current system is too strict and restrictive.

    Ideally, I feel that candidates of any particular position would sit down and agree upon a general set of principles in advance of the open-campaign season, then mutually elect a neutral third-party to hold them accountable. Additionally, I feel that the candidates should be able and willing to confront each other openly, either in private or in a public forum, regarding any doubts they have about particular campaign tactics being employed. I would hope that in a small community such as we have here at Middlebury, students can campaign and compete with mutual respect, dignity, and trust. The current system fosters a culture of distrust and skepticism; it encourages candidates to watch each other silently to pounce and eliminate opponents for slight missteps. To err is human, and I would love to see a set of election laws that permits a bit of flexibility. As President, I would definitely seek to change these rules.

    Best,
    Ryan Kim

    p.s. And on a humorous note, an endorsement video by the Middlebury Otters & Fifalo Aganga:http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=2934201807561&notif_t=like

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