Referendum discounted, debate continues
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 01:03
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 don’t 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 SG’s 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 year’s 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 won’t 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 didn’t 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.”