This year’s ESB set a dangerous precedent, next year’s ESB should ignore it

This year’s executive alliance election was not the first time complaints have nullified results, a runoff extended the campaign period, or students pilloried the Election Supervisory Board for its rulings. However, the ESB’s actions this campaign period introduced a dangerous new precedent. 

On March 1, the ESB decided that a tweet liked by the Guneez & Hannah official campaign account exemplified deceptive campaigning and placed a moratorium on the campaign for most of the last day of voting. On March 22, Colton Becker received a moratorium for what the ESB deemed verbal harassment: a “love-react” on Facebook. Both rulings were made in the absence of pre-existing guidelines governing how campaigns can act on social media. 

These decisions are dangerous. They go beyond regulating adherence to predetermined campaign rules and enter the realm of deciding what is and is not acceptable campaign content. The ESB sought to control candidates’ expression of their opinions on social media and, in doing so, stunted debate on campus. Censuring campaign content and ideological expression crosses a line. 

During election season, the ESB oversees campaigning. Any UT student can file complaints with a candidate or a campaign if they suspect a violation of the election code. Once a complaint is filed, the ESB interprets the election code and applies judgments in each individual case. Every candidate on UT’s ballot is subject to the Campus-Wide Election Code, as well as the code for their specific entity. In this year’s executive alliance hearings, the ESB made their ruling based on the Campus-Wide Election Code and the Student Government Election Code. The ESB based its rulings not only on their interpretation of the election codes but, crucially, the precedent set by the past three years of ESB rulings. 

The ESB’s March 1 ruling against the Guneez-Hannah campaign cites section 4.12 of the SG Election Code, which outlaws so-called “Deceptive Campaigning.” Never before has the ESB interpreted a campaign’s underlying message in order to deem the campaigning “deceptive.” In the past three years (the period considered “precedent” in ESB’s ruling) this clause has been interpreted as a preventative measure against campaigns lying to achieve specific ends. Previous ESBs had a much higher standard for proving deceptive campaigning — this is the first time in the past three years a campaign has actually been penalized for it. 

When the ESB ruled against the Guneez-Hannah campaign, it set a new precedent: The ESB can rule against what a campaign does online. This interpretation of a campaign’s expression of opinion — through likes and “love reacts” — seems careless, but the legacy of this decision will remain long after this ESB leaves office. Although this ruling was ultimately overturned, the Supreme Court’s decision did not specifically address the core problem with the ESB decision — their interference with student expression.

With its March 22 decision, the ESB doubled down and again ruled that it had the power to censure campaign behavior online. This time, it was in response to a “love-react” from presidential candidate Colton Becker’s personal Facebook page. Becker liked a post by UT Jewish community leaders responding to the SG campaign, which the ESB deemed verbal harassment. Once again, no precedent existed to treat a Facebook reaction as verbal harassment. But it exists now. 

Policing the personal viewpoints of candidates and supporters is unacceptable. The ESB’s actions cannot be excused as a symptom of a uniquely contentious election cycle. Now that election results are finalized and the dust has settled, we need a clear-eyed understanding of the irregularity and danger of ESB decisions this election cycle. 

Last night, the 2018 ESB was disbanded. Next spring’s ESB will be appointed in December, and they will inherit a dangerous precedent. However, they must not limit campaign’s expression online, or anywhere else.