ASSU Election Commissioner Abuses Power to Silence Review Petition

Update: On Monday night, the ASSU Elections Commissioner resolved the complaints against our petition so we could proceed onto the ballot. More information can be found here.

**We knew our petition to bring back a Western Civilization requirement would spark hostility from those who have tried to silence campus discourse in the past. What we did not expect, given consensus on campus that the attacks on our proposal resemble a witch-hunt, was a partisan attempt to abuse the ASSU’s discretionary power to stop Stanford from ever voting on our petition – which, despite the best efforts of those now mounting a new attack, garnered the requisite number of signatures to appear on the ballot.

Yet late last week, the ASSU Elections Commissioner notified us that he had halted our petition on the grounds that the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes were emailed about the petition on the night of the deadline. This action is yet another backroom attempt to stave off discussion of Stanford’s humanities core by interfering with the democratic process. We were initially hoping to resolve the complaint amicably, and we recognize the duty of the Commissioner to examine each complaint, but his continued pursual of this case leaves us no choice but to go public with our objections.

First, the substance of the Commissioner’s reasoning. While it took several days of communication for him to find a single written rule that restricts Stanford organizations from emailing students about petitions, we have now been told that the Stanford administrative guide says that Google Apps are confidential, and therefore that Stanford email addresses are also, apparently, confidential. If the Commissioner’s argument is that a student’s email address is confidential to that student alone, then all emails sent in history constitute heinous violations of Stanford policy. The fact that Gmail auto-suggests Stanford students as you type their names implies that our emails are the opposite of confidential: Stanford works to help you find them. A more plausible interpretation of the guide is that students may not distribute email addresses outside of the student body, which we of course did not do.

The Commissioner further claimed that “accessing email addresses […] without consent” is the real issue. Unfortunately, this language is not cited anywhere within Stanford policy, so it is unclear how we could have been expected to operate under this paradigm. Furthermore, students are emailed content via mailing lists to which they did not initially consent all the time, from dorm listservs to the ASSU Undergrads mailing list used for political purposes by John-Lancaster Finley and Brandon Hill (for example, they sent an email to the entire student body in “proud” support of the resolution to remove Serra’s name from campus). What matters is that students have the ability to opt out, an option we clearly provided on every email sent this year.

If the Commissioner’s objection is that emails may have swayed votes or in some other way disrupted the democratic process, he already has a convenient mechanism for dealing with this supposed bias. Every signatory to an ASSU petition is emailed in the days after the signature deadline to confirm their vote, allowing students the chance to opt out if they really were confounded by campaign emails from the FoHo, the Review, or others. It is unclear, therefore, why the Commissioner wishes to nullify the petition in its entirety, when people can remove their names even if the petition process continues.

Second, even if the Commissioner’s reading of Stanford policy did hold substance, it is unrelated to the Western Civilization petition. The email rule cited is from Stanford University guidelines, while the ASSU is an independent 501(c)(3). The ASSU Constitution itself points out that Stanford policy “not […] within the Constitution is a violation of the [ASSU’s] independence”. Thus, even if the Review were in fact breaking university policy, it should address the violation with the university itself rather than face electoral consequences from the ASSU. We have yet to be given or find any ASSU rules we have broken.

The Commissioner claims he has the authority to suspend our petition, despite the fact we broke no ASSU rules, because he can suspend petitions and “exercise […] independent judgment” for any reason. This is technically granted by the constitution, but fails the basic legal principle that the law needs to be written down or known before people can be expected to follow it. Given we could not reasonably be expected to know that the Commissioner would decide to enforce a non-ASSU rule and suspend our petition, his unilateral ex-post-facto action is unjustifiable.

Of course, the reason the Review was especially blindsided by this complaint was because mass emails have never caused a petition’s suspension before. We have sent emails to campus for years, using mailing lists that are open to Stanford students. There exists a Stanford publication predicated exclusively on mass emailing. As recently as last week, two other petitions – FMOTQ and Stanford’s alcohol policy – that relied at least in part on email campaigns have passed through the Commissioner without complaint.

This act demonstrates clear partisan bias against an initiative that the Commissioner – and ASSU President John-Lancaster Finley, who appointed him – personally dislike. The actual complaint sent to the Commissioner was the single line, “I’d like to submit a formal complain about this unsolicited email.” From this, the Commissioner saw fit to dredge through reams of Stanford policy until he found a (semi-)plausible violation, despite the fact the complainant may not have held this line of reasoning themselves.

StatusWhy did the Commissioner not show a similar proactivity in investigating the other two petitions’ email campaigns? The Review posits it might have something to do with the Commissioner’s bias. The Commissioner sent a long and explicitly anti-Western Civilization email to the Diaspora mailing list, criticizing the West as “perhaps the most infamous driver of slavery in the world”; criticized the Review writer who was suspended from FLIP for choosing to hide his identity; and asked a Review staffer running for Senate why he had even bothered to come to a meeting seeking political endorsement from SOCC. In national politics, judges honor their obligation to be impartial by recusing themselves from cases where their bias is clear and public. We demand that the Commissioner, as a supposedly impartial arbiter of campus elections, do the same.

The Commissioner has given us until Monday to respond to his electoral complaint. We hope this serves as an adequate starting point. Given that the ASSU Joint Bylaws state that “in borderline cases, the Elections Commissioner […] shall allow election issues to proceed towards placement on the ballot,” we believe his adjudication should be incredibly clear.

The witch-hunt against Western Civilization continues for as long as Stanford is blind to the backroom efforts to end dialogue on our successful petition before it has even begun. Don’t let the silencers win.

*Update: *The Elections Commissioner has asked us to clarify (1) that he is, in fact, investigating one other petition, though it pertains to group funding rather than a policy initiative, and (2) that his reason for questioning the Review writer at the SOCC endorsements meeting pertained to his perception that the writer had been opposed to SOCC’s agenda in the past. We are happy to convey these responses to our readership.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review