Auburn's student election law was the main focus during Monday night’s SGA Senate meeting, and two pieces of major legislation were passed including one that might change the way candidates get campaign representatives.
Two new provisions were passed through by the Senate, making “libelous or slanderous remarks” amongst candidates a punishable offense and creating a punishment process for candidates who force or require members of organizations to campaign for them.
“I encourage you to put aside any kind of motivations except the ones that come directly from the students,” said Executive Director of Elections Catherine Milling before debate began. “All these laws are written with the intent and spirit of directly answering their concerns and their voices that they have given us throughout past elections.”
Some organizations, including sororities, often require their members to support candidates from within their own organizations, which often means making those members take to the concourse seeking votes for their respective candidates.
This practice has gone on for years, if not decades, but the Student Senate is now moving to end it. Under this new provision, organizations will still be able to offer incentives for campaign volunteers but won't be able to make it a requirement.
“I definitely love the idea of this bill,” said At-Large Sen. Hannah Clarke. “For me, my sorority does require us to support our members, so if one of my best friends in another sorority was running while a member of my sorority was, I wouldn’t be able to support them; that’s definitely not ok with me.”
Clarke did, however, show concern with SGA’s jurisdiction and their ability to enforce the proposed law.
“Instead of writing this bill maybe write a resolution to panhellenic encouraging them to make this happen,” Clarke said. “I don’t think it’s SGA’s job to tell sororities what they can and cannot do.”
Milling responded to this, saying that the law will punish the candidate, not the organization, which SGA has no jurisdiction over. She went on to explain that this bill was proposed after the elections board received pleas from students asking SGA to take action.
“We have received multiple emails and phone calls [from students] saying that their organization, greek or not, has had them out on the concourse for eight to nine hours a day,” Milling said. “They feel it’s not fair, and they get sick, and they fail tests, and I just really want y’all to consider what the student body as a whole, not what Greek organizations want, not what other organizations want, but what students as a whole are asking you to pass, asking you to protect them.”
Engineering Sen. Kaitlyn Lawrence proposed changing the wording to limit candidates from requiring their organization to participate for them. Milling expressed her concerns with that wording, calling it a loophole.
“This new wording, I’m not going to lie I’m not a big fan of that,” Milling said. “If a candidate didn’t expressly say to his organization president ‘make them support me’ then we have this big loophole of ‘I never said it, he did it on his own’ and that’s a big gap, a discrepancy that I think could be exploited by the organization.”
Lawrence said SGA has no jurisdiction over organizations, and writing something into the code of laws would be overstepping their bounds. Elkins echoed those sentiments.
“I believe it would be much better for the process to go speak with [organizations] before [voting on] this,” Elkins said. “Those students freely joined the organization if it's a fraternity or sorority and they should be bound by what they joined.”
Senator Michael O’key said this law would only be enforced when students were actually being forced to do something they did not want to do.
“This is for those very few instances where someone is saying ‘I really don’t want to do this, I really don’t want to support this person;’ I don’t think it will happen a lot,” O’key said.
The provision passed the Senate. Exact vote totals have not yet been uploaded to the Senate's web page. Over the coming weeks, SGA will also take up other bills related to how campaigns are conducted on and off campus. One bill proposed will prohibit campaigning off campus on election day and another provision would limit the number of people any given campaign can have on the concourse at one time.
Elections Board Chair Robert Shaffeld expressed his concerns with the bills during open floor time, particularly with the other provision that would limit defamatory speech.
“The intent is great but the clarity of [the bills] is very vague,” Shaffeld said. “I think making it clear as to where those parameters are ... it makes my job as E-board chair easier.”
Vagueness was a common concern among senators throughout the evening and on almost every bill up for a vote.
The campaign language bill proposed to add a clause to Election law 708.4.7, one that already bars any language that “will mar the dignity of Auburn University or its campus.” The proposed portion read: “This includes but will not be limited to negative remarks regarding any candidate or campaign.”
“But what is a negative remark,” said Graduate Senator Sen. Max Zinner said. “That could just be something as simple as saying, 'I don’t like this person.’”
Following this, a motion was made to change “negative” to “defamatory,” but some senators still had concerns. Liberal Arts Sen. Ken Ward moved to change “defamatory remarks” to “only remarks that are considered libelous or slanderous” on grounds that leaving the wording too broad could drastically limit free speech.
“I think there is more conduct that could mar the dignity of Auburn University than just that,” said At-Large Sen. Cooper Elkins.
Agriculture Sen. Emily Stone reminded the Senate that language among candidates that could be considered defamatory would be reviewed in elections board with a hearing including both parties and only then would someone be punished.
“We all get into elections, we all get competitive, we all get protective of people we care about and ideas that we are passionate about,” said Stone. “I think it’s important to remember that at the end of the day this is Auburn University and that’s who we are and we need to clearly define how we show that.”
After President Jacqueline Keck clarified the definition of “defamation” and how it included libel and slander, Ward again expressed his concern that leaving the wording too broad could lead SGA down a “slippery slope.”
“Auburn, for many years, has been an institution that has had anti-bullying campaigns and summits, and I don’t think that [libel and slander] clearly limit what we are going for here about not marring the dignity of the University,” Milling said. “I’d really push to go with what the original language said; I think we all need to think about anything that could go outside the scope of that particular definition.”
Another motion was brought up by Elkins, changing the wording to “this includes, but will not be limited to, libelous or slanderous remarks regarding any candidate or campaign.” That motion was passed and the entire bill was subsequently passed as well, changing the wording of the election law.
Another major change to election law was discussed, limiting how many people could campaign for a particular candidate, but after much debate was sent back to the Code of Laws committee to be edited and brought up for a vote Oct. 23.