SGA speech restricted by internal, external regulations


Photo illustration CW / MK Holladay

Jackson Fuentes

Though the Student Government Association acts as the voice of the student body, their voice is not always free. Members of the SGA are inconsistent regarding their ability to speak openly and freely on campus. Those in higher positions have reached a consensus that while certain safeguards and etiquette should be adhered to, they say no concrete speech regulations have been implemented by the administration. However, legislators felt otherwise, saying tailored statements and campaign regulations restrict SGA speech.

Concerning the SGA’s ability to speak in an open fashion, third-year senator Robert Pendley, a graduate law student, said that the SGA does not have that ability as an organization. While unsure if the SGA’s statements are required to be reviewed, Pendley argued that in practice, the SGA’s statements are reviewed by the administration before publication. He then went on to cite statements made by the University and the SGA regarding the tragic death of Megan Rondini as examples of a possible inability to speak openly and freely.

“I don’t know if it was a tailor-fit message that President Hunter released,” Pendley said.  “[However] the statements that were made… seemed tailored to fit a University message, and I was critical of that on social media.” 

Pendley took the issue of not being able to speak openly a step further by asking how things might have differed if Hunter had been able to issue a statement that was solely his own. 

“If he had a different statement that he wanted to put forward, what would have happened?” Pendley said. “I don’t know if the student government could issue statements that would go squarely and critically against the University.”

Pendley said he is not critical of the University, but felt the student body was not properly represented.

“It seemed there was a huge student sentiment about the Megan Rondini story, and then there was the University’s story,” Pendley said. “They didn’t mesh.”

Pendley also expressed his understanding for the University and the SGA to remain on the same page.  

“I can see how [the University] would want to make sure that everything that is officially coming out of the SGA is in line with the principles that the University stands for,” Pendley said. “But I think that they can coexist separately.” 

Chief of Staff Caitlyn Cobb, a senior majoring in political science and Spanish, said that students generally run the student government, with the exception of things like writing statements.

“We want to be on the same page as the University,” Cobb said. “We work with [the University] to formulate official statements.”

Chief Justice Ellie Bowers, a senior majoring in political science and history, also mentioned there are standard etiquette guidelines that must be adhered to before later adding that those guidelines did not limit the SGA’s speech.

Each official continued to laud the University for its efforts toward free speech promotion.

SGA President Jared Hunter, a senior majoring in political science and economics, thanked the University for their promotion of free speech by a more hands-off approach and argued that throughout his time on campus, protests have been productive and have encouraged dialogue that otherwise would not have had a place in everyday conversation.     

“I can’t think of anything where the University has tried to prevent a student from saying something or from taking any actions regarding anything that’s happened,” Hunter said. “If anything, they definitely have a vested interest in making sure that students are being protected and are having their First Amendment rights upheld.” 

As it pertains to the University restricting SGA speech, Pendley stated that free speech is not controlled.

When asked if any branches of SGA were able to limit speech within other branches, the chief justice, president, chief of staff and speaker of the senate all responded that such was not the case.  The four individuals also came to the consensus that there was no entity that thoroughly controlled their affairs, but instead, when needed, their faculty advisers were available to assist.  

Campaign regulations were also discussed because of their importance in controlling speech for candidates who wish to join the SGA. In every branch, officials discussed the general spending and advertising limits highlighted in the 2017 Spring Elections Manual. However, depending on the branch, campaign regulations are treated and viewed differently because of each branch’s different interaction with them.  

In the judicial branch, Chief Justice Bowers said she encourages her justices to abstain from any campaigning, just as she does.  

“We don’t participate in campaigning,” Bowers said. “In a way, that could be seen as a limit on free speech. However, I do feel like that’s necessary for our job.”  

Bowers further noted that justices can campaign but then would not be able to rule on elections appeals.  

In the executive branch, campaign regulations must be followed by all who wish to run for office. Both Cobb and Hunter cited multiple examples where they thought they had followed the rules but were instead charged by the Elections Board.  

Hunter cited an example of a Snapchat that he had posted in an academic hall that was off-limits to campaigning. The Snapchat, which referenced him campaigning later that day, was deemed a violation of campaign regulations.

Consequently, there were grievances that the executive branch had concerning campaign regulations as they currently stand.

“There were some things that I did not anticipate going in,” Hunter said. “I did think that the Election Board was a little bit punitive and that the University was a little harsh themselves.”

Cobb acknowledged that the regulations are necessary but cited concerns with non-codified material left up to the discretion of the Elections Board. 

“There was a lot left up to interpretation of the Elections Board that was not codified in the Elections Manual,” Cobb said. “It made it very difficult to gauge how severe our punishments were versus punishments in the past.”

Regarding punishments given by the Elections Board, Pendley argued that punishments are not given out equally, thus hindering speech. He referenced the election of Jared Hunter as an example of such, but also warned of bias because of his work on Lillian Roth’s campaign.  

“Jared Hunter should have been disqualified, plain and simple,” Pendley said. “For providing alcohol for voters … I hate to think what we are teaching students at The University of Alabama for real-time politics.”  

In the legislative branch, Pendley and Speaker of the Senate Matthew Childress echoed the sentiment of Hunter and Cobb concerning the considerable amount of regulations that a candidate must be aware of in order to properly run for an SGA seat. Childress, while acknowledging his respect for the Board, simultaneously argued that the amount of rules has hindered candidates from running their best race.

Childress, a junior majoring in management information systems and finance argued that the Elections Board should do away with some of the rules that are “absolutely too stringent.”  Childress said these regulations hinder candidates’ campaigns, as well as the effectiveness of the Election Board.

“I think [the Elections Board] should give real hard thought to examining why certain rules are in place,” Childress said. “Perhaps they could bridge that communication gap by – before next election – explaining the reasoning behind some of those regulations that they haven’t changed from the past.”

When asked if the overwhelming amount of rules may have affected the Election Board’s ability to work efficiently before University student Ryan Truitt’s, “Motion to Compel,”  Childress argued that the abundant amount of rules would be hard for the Board to enforce.  

“As you make more rules, there’s more stuff you have to check,” said Childress. “I can’t imagine the time commitment it is to check all the rules that they have stood by.”