News analysis: Election media rules could face legal challenges

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While the ASUU Supreme Court overwhelmingly voted to deny hearing an appeal from presidential hopeful Cameron Beech, the legal dispute of his appeal is not as clear.

Beech was found in violation of election rules that prohibit candidates from sending the press written statements or campaign materials. He sent a Chronicle reporter a memo announcing his candidacy for student body president, but he may have a case in saying his right to free speech was violated.

The Elections Committee ruling was based on a blog posted by Associated Students of the University of Utah Elections Registrar Lorraine Evans, which prohibited candidates from seeking out the media in any fashion before posting day, when candidates are allowed to openly begin soliciting student votes.

Evans later reversed her interpretation of Redbook rules prohibiting early campaigning to allow candidates to contact the media, but not with written statements or campaign materials unless such materials are requested by reporters — allowing essentially all contact between the press and candidates, except in instances like Beech’s case.

However, Redbook, the student constitution, states that ASUU policies cannot violate state or federal laws, including the U.S. Constitution.

Thus, under the free speech clause of the First Amendment, Beech may have been able to argue that his right to free speech was violated.

While members of the court were hesitant in discussing their ruling, they said the case was denied because it was clear he broke the rule.

Beech does not deny that he sent out the memo; however, the court is intended to review a ruling’s constitutionality, not simply determine whether a candidate broke the rule.

Thus, the question comes down to whether ASUU has a compelling interest that allows it to regulate free speech.

Evans believes that when candidates decide to run for office they agree to certain restrictions necessary for ASUU to host an orderly election.

She said the disagreement is a dispute about a candidate’s early distribution of campaign materials, not free speech.

“That’s a completely different line,” Evans said.

Redbook suggests that regulations prohibiting pre-active campaigning are intended to prevent one candidate from gaining an unfair advantage over another and to keep campaigning down to a limited time period.

In previous years, ASUU elections officials did not interpret active campaigning rules to apply to candidate’s interactions with the media.

The Elections Committee stated in its ruling that the rules could apply to the media because they are technically an unaffiliated group and candidates are subject to the same rules when talking to reporters as they would be with other students.

For Wayne McCormick, a professor in the U law school, the issue is a tough question of whether ASUU elections fall under a separate set of rules.

He said that if ASUU can prove its elections are primarily an educational process, they may be able to justify a compelling interest in enforcing rules that are contrary to state or federal law.

In a written statement, a majority of the ASUU justices stated their concern that the rule “may substantially obstruct the media’s role in the elections process.” They asked the legislative branch to consider drafting a bill to clarify the rules.

Mark Goodwin, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said there is no legal distinction between a campus and a community election, so ASUU can’t enforce rules that go beyond state election law.

“There has never been any state or federal law that prohibits candidates from ever talking to the media,” he said.