The Collegian
Wednesday, June 29, 2022

OPINION: Westhampton College has a free speech problem

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

The Westhampton Student Government Association administration disqualified junior Hoor Ain from the presidential election on March 31. Ain had alleged in her campaign that there were “sexual predators” in the Richmond College Student Government Association and that she would work to remove these sexual predators from their positions of power. While WCGA has not commented specifically on the reason for Ain’s disqualification, the WCGA standards ban candidates from “comparative, inappropriate or insulting language.” 

These campaigning regulations are excessive, vague, capricious and grant way too much power to administrators rather than student electors. Elections should be designed to facilitate effective representation for students and not to sanitize language so that candidates cannot express their positions on issues. Banning “comparative” speech prevents candidates from making important distinctions between themselves and other candidates. Moreover, terms like “inappropriate” speech are so vague that they practically grant administrators an absurd amount of discretion to dictate what can and cannot be said in an election. 

These election rules are especially ironic at the University of Richmond which affirmed a free expression statement that states “At the University of Richmond, speech may not be suppressed, nor speakers disinvited, simply because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be unwelcome or deeply offensive.”

To be clear, I think that the vast majority of RCSGA senators are dedicated students who care deeply about supporting women and combatting sexual assault on campus. There are certainly important areas for reform (such as the problem of allowing only men to elect male senators to RCSGA), but our campus community cannot effectively pursue reform without letting people speak freely.

Ain’s comment in the election was not language I would use if I were running for election, but if candidates could say only what I would say, then only my words would be on the ballot. As president, Ain would have to work with RCSGA, and this statement about the organization does not exactly set you up for a productive relationship. However, the role of an election is not to sanitize language but rather to let the free exchange and clash of ideas flow so that voters can make an informed decision about who best represents their interests.

To recap, Ain, an engaged, passionate and experienced senator, was disqualified from an election to represent WCGA for making a statement protected by UR’s free expression statement recently affirmed by the Board of Trustees. 

WCGA has a right to set its election procedures. This does not imply, however, that whatever WCGA sets as the election requirements is justified. After all, WCGA members could say that only senators who say UR is free of imperfections and who never criticize administrators are eligible to be president. This approach would be legal, but completely against the spirit and mission of UR. 

To make matters worse, there were only two candidates, so disqualifying Ain means that Westhampton administrators bypassed the voters and declared a president by fiat. This is behavior befitting an authoritarian puppet state more than the purportedly democratic WCGA.

So what should be done? I think that Westhampton College needs to determine if it is truly an ally of free speech and the open exchange of ideas. If it is, it should revise its draconian election requirements to permit candidates to more freely express themselves and let the voters decide who will represent them. WCGA should also consider holding another election where candidates are able to speak freely.

Contact Alec Greven at alec.greven@richmond.edu.

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