Fifteen minutes before Student Body Elections results were to be announced on Friday, the student body received an email with the subject line, Apologies from Student Government, stating that the two student-proposed referendum questions on the ballot would be discounted as an official Student Government (SG) referendum.
Though the results were announced, the questions, according to the email signed by student body President Brian Goff, caused much confusion, and legal counsel advised that the referendum was inconsistent with Florida statutes as well as USF policies.
But the students who proposed the referendum, the USF student organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), said they dont feel the referendum was in violation of state or USF policies, and said they felt their rights to free speech had been stepped on.
The referendum questions, which were added to the ballot after a petition from SJP was submitted to the Elections Rules Committee, sparked controversy on campus and resulted in complaints to SG.
One question asked students if they supported the USF Student Government in adhering to the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The referendum question passed.
The other asked students if they supported boycotting, divesting and sanctioning corporations affiliated with human rights violations by replacing them with ethical alternatives. This one did not pass.
When voting, students could click to see a details panel, which provided an explanation written by members of SJP, suggesting the university boycott three corporations Sabra, Hewlett Packard and Strauss Group Ltd. because of their connections with what they stated were human rights violations that met the definition for an apartheid in Palestine.
According to section 705.3 of SGs election code, Any student enrolled at the University of South Florida, Tampa Campus, can call for a Student Referendum in accordance with the Student Body Constitution if they obtain 20 percent of the last years student body election voter turnout and that the language that is placed on the ballot shall state verbatim the Student Referendum as submitted by the student and approved by the Electorate.
In early February, members of SJP were initially told by SG Senate President Jeff Gao and student body President Brian Goff that a bill would not be drafted in the senate calling for divestment.
I wont let the Senate Chambers be used to make a political statement, Gao said to The Oracle in early February.
Goff said that at the time, he consulted General Counsel, who advised him that because SG is part of the university, bills cannot be drafted that contradict with university and state policies, so Goff said SJP was advised to create a petition and obtain 1,540 signatures.
We thought that was the outlet to have the student voice heard, Goff said.
The group turned in a petition with more than 2,500 student signatures, which were verified by members of SG Advising, Training and Operations staff members, according to Elections Rules Committee Supervisor Karim Hussein. But over the weekend, Goff heard from representatives of General Counsel that the legal issues existed regardless of the context.
It was not necessarily the content the referendum was bringing forth, but the context in which it was put on a student ballot violates state law, Goff said. The forum by which we provided the referendum to be heard was the biggest issue. We didnt want to open up any liability to Student Government or students.
But the authors of the petition said their voices were unfairly suppressed.
We feel that students right to free speech was tampered with, Hamed El-Jabeli, a freshman majoring in microbiology and a member of SJP, said.
According to an email obtained by The Oracle through a third party, purportedly sent from Associate General Counsel Joanne Adamchak to Goff, Gao and SG adviser Gary Manka last Sunday, the referendum violated Florida statutes 104.31 and 110.233, which outline prohibited political activity including attempts to directly or indirectly coerce or attempt to coerce, command and advise any such officer or employee as to where he or she might purchase commodities or to interfere in any other way with the personal right of said officer or employee.
From my reading of the referendum, if SGA permits the referendum, the officers are indirectly advising the university on how to purchase commodities, etc., the email said. I understand the position of SGA is there is no limitation on the referendum permitted, however, there is an overall duty to abide by state law and university policies and SGA cannot adopt a statute, by law … or referendum that violates those laws and policies. I dont know what more I can say.
According to a response email purportedly sent from Gao early Monday morning, as a non-binding referendum SG did not have the authority to stop the referendum.
I understand the nature of the referendum is disconcerning [sic], the email said. However, we as a Student Government have not adopted this referendum. We are merely providing the mechanism for a students voice to be heard via the referendum process … We are not, directly or indirectly, taking a political position on this referendum as Student Government. … In the best interest of the students and the democraitic [sic] process the referendum will be placed on the ballot for the students to vote on.
But an email purportedly sent the night before from Manka to Goff, Gao and Hussein advised for the removal of the referendum.
As a result of the information provided by university counsel, I am advising that SG remove the referendum from tomorrows ballot, the email said. … I feel it would be more beneficial for all parties, including those students who submitted the petition, for SG to hold their own referendum later in the semester. This would be the best way to honor the petition submission and represent those students voices to the student body at large. Of course, this is your decision.
Goff said after a miscommunication between Gao, Hussein and legal counsel, the questions were placed on the ballot and that General Counsel called an emergency meeting in which SG was advised to announce the results of the ballot, but state that the referendum should not have been on the ballot and is not affiliated with the university or SG.
In his email to the student body, Goff stated that SG will work to make sure this issue is addressed.
Our Student Government hasnt, and wont, take a stance on international politics that is well beyond our means, he wrote. … We accept full responsibility for the confusion and lack of advertisement for this referendum. It is always our #1 priority to make sure the student voice is heard, which is why we added this last minute to the ballot. This did not give us enough time to advertise the ballot to you, for which we apologize. At the time, it was what we felt to be the best thing to do in order to make sure their voices were heard, but we now realize that doing so inhibited our voters from being as informed as possible and voicing their opinions, which is not our intent nor was it the intent of the authors of the referendum.
But the authors of the referendum said they feel their voice hasnt been heard and that the university bullied and misled SG into discounting the vote.
The non-binding student referendum was the students rights to free speech and did not violate any state statutes, El-Jabeli said.
El-Jabeli said SJP has consulted with first amendment lawyers and lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union who he said support the groups rights.
Since the email was sent to the student body, Goff said he has received much feedback. Many have taken to Twitter and Facebook and have questioned Goff for previously expressing his support for U.S.-Israeli relations in a letter sent to the Hillel Center.
But Goff said the issue is one that he approaches with universal respect.
Im not against any one people or their cause, he said. I love and respect all people of this earth equally. … Im a champion of human rights causes as they are and Ive reached out, but have only been met by disdain and cold shoulders. Even after this referendum, I want the same thing they want peace in the Middle East. We may not agree on how to get there the same way, but I want the same things. The more we can work together on this, maybe one day in the near future this can become a reality in the world, which is what we all want.
El-Jabeli said SJP has yet to hear from SG or the university as to what will be done next.