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FREE SPEECH ALERT: California Students Fined $100 for Talking to Reporters

Several students running for student government positions at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo have been fined $100 for talking to reporters–which counts as a violation of the school’s election code. Critics say the fines violate students’ first amendment rights. J.J. Jenkins, Editor-in-Chief of the school’s newspaper, offers an account of the fines below, and the ongoing dispute over free speech rights on campus.

“Active campaigning is defined as a non-verbal public display or distribution of specific information (physical or electronic) about any ASI candidate.”

That’s what the Associated Students Inc. (ASI) election code prohibits prior to 10 days before an election.

I’m communicating non-verbally now. If I were to write the names of the four candidates for ASI President, it would put them in violation of the election code and a fine could be levied. In fact, if you were to write a comment or tweet naming a student in connection with “ASI presidential candidate,” you too could open them up to a violation.

Fines against two candidates — who I won’t name again here — have been authorized after they or their campaign staff spoke with Mustang News last week and we printed their quotes.

We ran a story about those fines Tuesday, and ASI declared the candidates to be in violation of the code again. We printed a story about the second violation because it was newsworthy — predictably resulting in a third violation.

It’s a vicious cycle. We get it, and so does ASI. But it highlights an infringement on the candidates’ right to free speech, the right to speak with a newspaper and have their words distributed to a wider audience.

Consequently, it has put us in the unenviable position of reporting news knowing it could result in fines to innocent candidates. But if we tailor our news coverage to what ASI deems appropriate, we aren’t doing our job as independent investigators of facts on this campus.

Not reporting news on ASI candidates leads to a less informed student body, causing people to make uninformed decisions that can change a community. We want our readers to make informed decisions, so we decided to run these stories.

It’s up to ASI to end the cycle by amending the election code. The broad language of the code has dissuaded candidates from speaking with the student newspaper, and thus our readers, creating a less informed campus.

We would like to have candidates explain their views to the public — through Mustang News and other outlets — without repercussions, so more information about the election is available to more students.

Our stories have highlighted a flaw in the election code. Now it’s up to ASI to waive the fines and end the vicious cycle.

J.J. Jenkins is a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Mustang News Editor-in-Chief.

(Image: NoFreeSpeech.FLICKR)

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