USF Student Government rule may violate First Amendment, expert says

The Oracle has published “Meet the candidates” articles since its inaugural year in 1966. ORACLE PHOTO

As voting for the Student Government (SG) elections begins this week, presidential candidates received a notable instruction while campaigning: Don’t speak to The Oracle.

The tickets received an email last week from the Elections Rules Commission (ERC) instructing them they “must decline” interviews with The Oracle that discuss their campaigns, according to screenshots sent to The Oracle by some candidates. 

This email came after most interviews had been conducted for The Oracle’s annual “Meet the candidates” series. These articles detail each presidential ticket’s campaign.

Related: Here’s more about this year’s Student Government presidential tickets – The Oracle 

Bobby Block, executive director for the First Amendment Foundation – an organization that aims to protect free speech and press in Florida – said the ERC would “be in violation of the law and the First Amendment” if candidates were forced to decline interviews. 

“You cannot preempt speech,” Block said. “That’s the beginning, middle and end of it.” 

The ERC wrote in the email that the decision came after reviewing SG Title 7, which outlines a violation in statute 706.5.3.1.

This regulation states candidates cannot use Activity and Service (A&S) fee-funded materials to “further their campaign.” A&S fees are paid by students and distributed to organizations by SG. The Oracle is an A&S-funded department.

Following a meeting between the ERC and Oracle editors last Tuesday, Rodriguez sent an email to candidates stepping back on the decision.

The ERC was instructed by Gary Manka, SG’s adviser, not to accept minor grievances, or formal complaints, that pertain to articles published by USF’s student newspapers regarding candidates running for office. The email said this was because “SG governing documents cannot contradict higher laws,” the email read.

The “Meet the candidates” articles were published on time last Tuesday following the meeting.

Dora Rodriguez, the SG supervisor of elections, wrote in a statement to The Oracle over the weekend that if a candidate were to violate statute 706.5.3.1, it would constitute a Level 1 Minor Violation worth two points. Candidates are disqualified if they accumulate 10 points.

Some candidates messaged The Oracle following the ERC’s initial email last Tuesday pleading for articles discussing their campaigns not to be published. They feared they would be penalized for speaking to The Oracle.

Rodriguez said she “welcomes differing opinions” to the ERC’s interpretation of the statute in her statement to The Oracle.

Presidential candidate Connor Avila, who is running alongside junior Tianyi Li Bueso, said they felt the interpretation of the statute was correct. He said the ERC was unaware of free speech laws “that would conflict with them.” 

However, Avila said they were disappointed by the ERC’s initial email.

“We both felt that students should hear not only [about] our platform, but all the candidates running, so that they can make an informed decision,” he said. “It did feel restrictive on our freedom to speak with the media, mostly because our only real option to speak with [media] is the USF Oracle.”

The other three presidential tickets did not return The Oracle’s request for comment at the time of publication.

Related: Inclusivity, sustainability among topics discussed at USF SG presidential debate – The Oracle 

Elizabeth Volmy, student body vice president, said coverage on each presidential ticket’s platform is important for students to read.

“If I wasn’t already in SG and I read The Oracle, I’d wanna know what each platform is about because I’m not really gonna go to SG to find that out,” Volmy said. “I don’t think there’s any bias with it… I personally think it’s something that should continue.”

Block, the First Amendment expert, said the interpretation should remain unenforced.  

“You can’t [tell] people where and what they can say and who they can talk to,” Block said. “And that is not something that you are giving up when you’re on campus.”