Heard and Decided March 8, 2007
Opinion Published March 12, 2007
In re: J. Clayton Brett v. The Pants Party
COUNSEL: Rosemarie Clouston on behalf of Petitioner; Jesus Suarez on behalf of Respondent.
JUSTICE: GAVRICH, C.J., MAYLOR, J, KLEIN J., and VIALPANDO, J. concur. CAMPBELL, J. concurring in the judgment.
The Supreme Court of the Student Body [the “Court”] here reviews Petitioner’s appeal of the Election Commission’s decision in the case of John Clayton Brett v. The Pants Party, Case No. 2007-S-0007. We have jurisdiction. See § 729.0, Student Body Statutes. For the reasons explained below, we affirm.
1. Procedural History
On February 28, 2007, the Elections Commission [the “Commission”] heard arguments in the case of John Clayton Brett v. The Pants Party, Case No. 2007-S-0007. The Commission made three determinations is its decision issued March 1, 2007: (1) The Commission denied the Petitioner’s motion to defer the hearing. (2) The Commission held that the Chair of the Commission has the authority to issue a cease and desist order. (3) The Commission held that the Petitioner’s distribution of “I Voted” stickers violated § 761.21. On March 6, 2007, Petitioner filed a Request for Appeal with the Court, and the Court approved. Petitioner specifically appealed the Commission’s decision that the distribution of “I Voted” stickers violated § 761.21.
§ 761.21 of the Student Body Statutes specifically provides that “No candidate shall give, offer, or promise to any student or student organization any benefit not authorized by student body law in order to influence the votes of that student or members of that organization.” According to § 744.1, a political party may be held liable for the actions of individuals if a complainant can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the political party solicited the individual to violate any provision of the Student Government Election Code. On this point, the Court believes the Elections Commission’s findings of fact were accurate. Therefore, the Court agrees that the Petitioner may be held liable under § 761.21 for the actions of the persons who distributed “I Voted” stickers of its behalf.
In interpreting § 761.21, the Court developed the following three prong test. In order to demonstrate a violation of § 761.21, a person must first show that a candidate conferred a benefit on a student or student organization. If this requirement is satisfied, a person must then demonstrate that such benefit was unauthorized by the Student Body Statutes or Student Body Constitution. Last, a person must show that the candidate conferred the benefit in order to influence the vote. The Court finds that these three requirements were satisfied.
The Court agrees that the distribution of “I Voted” stickers conferred a benefit on the students that received them. The right to display an “I Voted” sticker is a privilege conferred on the students by the polling representatives and the Supervisor of Elections. For some students, an “I Voted” sticker is a valuable benefit because it represents their participation in the electoral process. For others, the “I Voter” sticker has value because it demonstrates that the student has previously voted and it may deter a campaigner from approaching him or her. Accordingly, the Court holds that the Petitioner conferred a benefit on students by distributing the “I Voted” stickers.
The Court agrees that the “I Voted” stickers were unauthorized by the Student Body Statutes. To be authorized, campaign materials must bear the words “paid political advertisement.” See § 762.0.1 Therefore, in determining whether the stickers were unauthorized, the Court first considered whether the “I Voted” stickers constituted “campaign materials” as defined by § 700.4 (d). According to that provision, campaign materials include “any print or electronic material used for the purpose of supporting a candidate or political party for an elective Student Body office, an initiative, a referendum question, or proposed constitutional amendment.”
The distribution of “I Voted” stickers by polling representatives is a long standing practice in Student Government elections. When distributed by polling representatives, the “I Voted” stickers are polically neutral and do not constitute campaign materials. However, the Court believes the Petitioner distributed “I Voted” stickers to satirize the current practices of Student Government and to further their stated platform that “SG SUCKS.”2 Therefore, the Court agrees that the stickers constituted campaign material when distributed by the Petitioner. Accordingly, because the stickers constituted campaign materials and because they did not bear the words “paid political advertisement,” the stickers were unauthorized under the Student Body Statutes.
Thirdly, the majority agrees that distribution of “I Voted” stickers by the Petitioner influenced the vote. Because polling representatives only distribute “I Voted” stickers to voters after votes are cast, the Court believes that the act of distributing “I Voted” stickers to students before their votes were cast caused voter suppression and discourages voting. We further believe that the act of distributing “I Voted” stickers influenced the vote by disrupting the legitimate, long time practice of many student organizations of using “I Voted” stickers to track voter turnout. Because student organizations were unable to accurately use “I Voted” stickers to track voter turnout within their organizations, we believe that voter turnout was negatively influenced overall. Therefore, based on the above, the Court finds that the Respondent has demonstrated the three requirements inherent in § 761.21. Accordingly, the Court holds that the Petitioner has violated § 761.21.
Lastly, with respect to constitutional issues raised by the Petitioner, the Court holds that the Commission’s issuance of a cease and desist order prior to its ruling was not an unconstitutional restraint on free speech under Article I, § 4 of the Florida Constitution and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Moreover, the Court holds that the subsequent ruling of the Commission did not constitute an unconstitutional limitation on free speech. While the right to free speech is undeniable, the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted a multitude of restrictions on speech. For example, in the case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court held that limits on campaign contributions "serve[d] the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process without directly impinging upon the rights of individual citizens and candidates to engage in political debate and discussion." Similarly, the Court believes that the Student Body Statutes regulating campaign material are constitutional and properly work to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. Accordingly, the Petitioner cannot be excused from following Student Body Law. For these reasons and the reasons stated above, the Court hereby affirms the decision of the Commission in the case of John Clayton Brett v. The Pants Party, Case No. 2007-S-0007.
Campbell, J. (concurring in judgment)
I concur in the judgment that the Pants Party violated at least one provision in Chapter 700 of the Student Government Election Code ("Code"). However, I do not agree that Pants violated the Code provision that the Student Government Elections Commission ("commission") charged them with violating, §761.21. Additionally, I believe the real issue and argument was never raised.
The Student Government Elections Commission anchored their charges against the Pants Party on Code §761.21. This provision states:
"761.21. No candidate shall give, offer, or promise to any student or student organization any benefit not authorized by student body law in order to influence the votes of that student or members of that organization."
This provision was written to prevent candidates from agreeing to provide unauthorized benefits in exchange for votes. It was written to prevent fraudulent "wheeling and dealing." As an example of what the drafters intended §761.21 to prevent, I give the following hypothetical proposal:
CANDIDATE: "If you will get everyone in your organization to vote for me, then after I'm elected I'll ensure that everyone in your organization receives free tickets to Gator football games compliments of the Student Government's budget.
The hypothetical above shows an express agreement. In reality, the agreement could be express or implied and need not be this extreme to be wrongful. What matters is that the candidate hopes to exchange unauthorized benefits for votes. This is the type of conduct the legislature intended to outlaw when it gave §761.21 the force of law.
In the present situation the Pants Party randomly and indiscriminately distributed "I Voted" stickers. The Pants asked nothing in return and the recipients, by accepting the stickers, expected nothing in return and had no further obligations. Once the stickers were gifted, the transaction was complete and the recipients were free to vote or not to vote at their discretion. The conduct proscribed by §761.21 does not apply to the present situation and the commission should not have anchored its claim upon a violation of §726.21.
The real issue, never raised, follows.
The Gator Party and those student organizations whose members tend to associate with the Gator Party are comparatively well organized and structured. Party and organization leadership encourage their members to vote. They use the "I Voted" stickers as a method of vote accounting. If, at the end of the day, an organizational member cannot present an "I Voted" sticker, leadership will influence the member to hit the polls. The stickers are proof that the members voted. As such, the stickers are a form of political "currency" with a unique value in this Student Government. I make no judgment whatsoever on the merits of this process.
The Pants Party is differently organized and structured. They do not have a similar sticker "vote accounting" process in place. The Pants Party does not like the way the Gator Party uses the stickers. They argue that the vote enforcement mechanism is anti-democratic. I make no judgment whatsoever on the merits of their argument. Regardless, it is advantageous to the Pants Party to flood the market with the stickers. Their logic is as follows: "Some members of Gator Party vote only because they are pressured into voting. These members must prove they voted with a sticker. If I give them a sticker, then they don't actually have to vote. They can put this sticker on the voter board and pretend they voted." Thus, their goal in distributing these stickers was to devalue the "currency" and disrupt the Gator Party's process.
Regardless of who distributed the stickers, for both Gator and Pants, the stickers were used to influence votes. Saying otherwise would deny reality. For the Gator Party the influence comes at the end of the day when an organizational member cannot present a sticker and is persuaded by leadership to go vote. For the Pants Party the influence comes in the middle of the day when they give a sticker to someone who then decides not to vote and later presents their leader with false proof. It is obvious that each party used the stickers to accomplish the same goal: to influence the vote.
One could argue that the key difference is that, on one side, the stickers were officially distributed by poll workers (and not Gator Party members) and, on the other, the Pants Party members were personally distributing the stickers. This argument values form over substance. It does not matter who distributes the stickers if they are ultimately used for the same purpose. Labeling something as "official" does not cure an inherent defect. Scanning any History textbook proves this point.
Apparently this "Stickergate" controversy has raised its ugly head before. Until this Court either declares that the stickers are, or are not, contraband, the controversy will continue its cycle of reincarnation. In the interests of justice and equity, I believe that this Court should make a decision that will apply to everyone equally. This would be the right thing to do.
However, the Pants Party is far from innocent. The Chair of the Elections Commission may grant a preliminary cease and desist order under authority pursuant to Code §723.4. In the present case, the Chair issued an order for the Pants to stop distributing the "I Voted" stickers. The order was summarily ignored. At this point, the merits of the order do not matter. What matters is that the Pants Party unilaterally decided that the order was invalid. That was a big mistake. The Pants Party should have made a good faith effort to follow the order and then use the judicial process for vindication. Instead, they took the law into their own hands.
Student Government will not work unless everyone plays by the rules. Unlike the real world, Student Government has few enforcement mechanisms for violation of an order. In voluntarily participating in Student Government, individuals and parties are also volunteering to play by the rules. The Pants Party willingly chose not to play by the rules. This cavalier attitude cannot be tolerated and is the only reason I concur in the judgment that the Pants Party violated the Code.
1 According to the record of the Commission, the stickers distributed by Petitioner did not bear these words.
2 The record states that the Petitioner printed and distributed t-shirts which stated the slogan “SG SUCKS.” The Court is of the opinion that the Petitioner organized around this central theme.
Supreme Court: "Go...."