Senate votes in favor of electoral reform, continues discussion on free speech in final meeting

April 24, 2019, 7:05 p.m.

At the last meeting of the 20th Undergraduate Senate, senators unanimously passed a bill certifying election results for the next term, continued discussion of a bill regarding the Associated Students of Stanford University’s (ASSU) role in free speech and passed a resolution standing in solidarity with the victims of police brutality on Yale’s campus. Senators were split on, but ultimately passed, a bill that would mandate electoral reform in the coming term.

Several senators-elect, ASSU Executive-elect Erika Scott ’20 and Zintis Inde, ASSU director of academic freedom and fifth-year Ph.D. student, also attended.

Electoral reform

Senator Gabe Rosen ’19 called for the creation of a standing committee to reform the Senate electoral process with a bill he co-authored with Matthew Wigler ’19 and introduced two weeks ago.

“There needs to be a defined area where we have the past decisions of the constitutional council, Senate, GSC [Graduate Student Council] … or else every four years or so, we’re going to have to reinvent the wheel,” Rosen said.

Senate Chair Leya Elias ’21 asked Rosen for the specific, immediate issues that prompted the reform bill. Rosen highlighted the need for the preservation of institutional knowledge between outgoing and incoming senators and an increase in accessibility of the electoral process itself.

Wigler asserted that even the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Reform recognizes the current voting system as discriminatory.

“In fact, the Philippines and Mongolia had an electoral system like the one we employ right now. They moved off of it in the last decade,” Wigler said.

Despite a general sense of support for the bill, the lack of communication with GSC was a recurring issue, as the Senate was unsure whether or not electoral reform was a priority for the council.

Elias again questioned the portion of the bill that allowed five members of the GSC to join the standing committee, asking whether or not senators had been in contact with the GSC. Rosen clarified that this bill had not been sent to the GSC, but that members of the council could decide at a later date whether or not to join the committee.  

Current senators opened up the floor to senators-elect for input. Sam Schimmel ’22 expressed support, but asked what the bill would actually mean for incoming senators. Rosen explained that the new Senate would have to create a committee, but future action — or lack thereof — would be decided by them.

Senator Tim Vrakas ’21 and Rosen also clarified that the committee could be dissolved if the incoming senators so wished, prompting Senator-elect Jonathan Lipman ’21 to note that, “We don’t lose anything by passing this bill, if anything we gain a lot.”

The bill was passed 7-4, with one abstention.

Free speech

Senators continued their discussion from last week of a bill that would require all Voluntary Student Organizations (VSOs) to include a statement about the role of the ASSU in its funding on all publicity of the VSOs’ events.

The statement reads that, “ASSU funding for invited speaker events does not imply ASSU endorsement of the speaker, but rather is intended to promote student-driven conversations,” and adds that the ASSU “affirms the value of free speech in our campus dialogue.”

Vrakas and Rosen stated that they supported the statement itself, but wanted to exclude clauses that implied immediate punishment for VSOs that did not make use of the statement.

Senator Faa Diallo ’21 expressed worry that a lack of clarity on how the bill would be enforced could create a toxic culture on campus. Senator Zakaria Sharif ’21 agreed, saying that the bill could become a “game of which group can report the other group fast enough.”

Elias found fault with the wording of the statement, saying that the ASSU does not “promote student-driven conversations” like it claims, and that the core values of the ASSU were not reflected in the statement. Inde responded that the statement was intended to imply that, by funding speaker events, the ASSU is trying to promote discussion among students and with speakers.

Chapman and Sharif shared the sentiment that the statement seemed like a way of absolving the ASSU of obligation and ending future conversations about free speech. Scott, who also serves as co-chair of the ASSU’s Committee of Academic Freedom, disagreed, saying that the bill was not an end-all be-all and merely a jumping off point for future reform.

“This is a huge priority of my term,” Scott said.

All agreed, however, that the public was not informed of the specific role of the ASSU when it came to funding. Rosen said that there was a “fundamental perception disconnect” on the role that the Senate plays, and Jianna So ’21 claimed that many students were confused as to why funding for VSOs actually happens.

As such, a bill requiring a cabinet meeting between ASSU executives, Senators, councillors and members of the Constitutional Council to learn about state and federal law regarding freedom of speech “and the legal considerations at stake in the funding of student groups and activities by ASSU” was unanimously passed.

However, the motion to vote on the first bill was defeated 8-2, with three abstentions. Decisions on future action will be determined by the next wave of senators and the next director of academic freedom, who has not yet been selected.

Resolution in support of Yale

In the wake of the shooting of two unarmed civilians by the Yale Police Department, Elias proposed a joint resolution to condemn police brutality and show solidarity with the Black Students for Disarmament at Yale. Students from the Black Students for Disarmament at Yale had previously reached out to members of the ASSU to send specific language that they wanted the Senate to pass.

Wigler objected to the idea of disarming the Yale Police Department. Elias responded that calling for disarmament would pressure the YPD to clear up the muddy issues of jurisdiction that came from having three different police forces.

Vrakas asked if the resolution was supported by the Yale student body as a whole or a specific subset of it. Elias said a “significant” portion of the student body supported the resolution and that a popular petition was circulating through the Yale campus.

“We’re never going to know whether it represents the whole student body,” added Sharif. “Black Students for Disarmament is a group of Yale students who are most directly affected by the events and events like this, and I think their voices are the ones that matter the most.”

The resolution passed with two abstentions. The meeting concluded with these final words — and cheerful applause — from Rosen: “To paraphrase Ed Murrow: Good night, Stanford, and good luck.”

Contact Anushree Thekkedath at anuthekk ‘at’

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