Wagstaff ’14 cleared of campaign penalty after appeal
The USG voted to clear presidential candidate Benedict Wagstaff ’14 of the 10 points it had penalized him for negative campaigning after he published a chart comparing the presidential and vice presidential candidates on his Facebook page Sunday night.
The violation had initially given Wagstaff 19 penalty points, one point shy of being prohibited from campaigning via email or Facebook. He is now down to nine penalty points. His opponent, Class of 2015 senator Shawon Jackson ’15, has three penalty points. If a candidate accumulates 50 penalty points, it is grounds for disqualification.
USG chief elections manager Julian Dean ’13 notified Wagstaff of the violation Monday night via email, explaining that the chart counted as libel because it compared the candidates without substantial legitimate basis, violating section 7.3 of the elections handbook, which states, “Candidates are strongly discouraged from making statements that compare one candidate to another without substantial legitimate basis.”
Dean is a former operations manager for The Daily Princetonian.
Wagstaff appealed the violation at an emergency USG Senate meeting on Tuesday evening. At the meeting, Dean expressed concern that the results of the Senate’s vote on the appeal would not only determine whether Wagstaff would retain the 10 penalty points and be forbidden from publishing the chart on Facebook again but also set a precedent for the kind of campaigning future candidates are allowed to do.
Class of 2014 senator Dillon Sharp represented Wagstaff at the meeting and argued that the elections managers’ reasons for penalization were logically incoherent. Sharp explained that section 7.3 of the elections handbook does state, “Candidates must not engage in negative campaigning,” but also notes, “Candidates are strongly discouraged from making statements that compare one candidate to another without substantial legitimate basis.”
He highlighted the distinction between what candidates “must not” do and what candidates are “strongly discouraged” from doing, saying the first part indicates a “rule” and the second indicates a “suggestion.”
“This is neither slander nor libel,” Sharp said, arguing that Wagstaff cannot logically be charged with any violation, he explained.
After Dean and Sharp spoke, the Senate meeting concluded without any questions during the public session. All members of the USG Senate participated in the vote, except for Jackson. The actual margin of the vote, however, is confidential, USG vice president Stephen Stolzenberg ’13 said. A two-thirds majority was needed to sustain the appeal.
“Although I disagree with the Senate, there is a formal process to overturn decisions, and that process worked effectively tonight,” Dean said. “I will remove 10 points from Benny, and now disseminating the chart is completely allowed.”
Wagstaff’s chart could have been grounds for immediate disqualification for disseminating allegedly false information about his opponents according to section 9.3 of the elections handbook, Dean explained. The elections managers decided not to disqualify Wagstaff from the race due to the ambiguity of the situation, Dean said.
Dean explained the violation was not clear-cut because the chart may not have been libelous but rather factually inaccurate. For example, the chart notes that the largest project managed by Jackson affected 260 students, Dean said, while Jackson could claim that his project providing bagels to students on the first day of classes distributed food to 800 students.
“It is not the elections manager’s job to be a fact-checker,” Dean said, noting that this was why they had not disqualified Wagstaff.
Wagstaff ended up being penalized 10 points on the grounds that the chart lacked a substantial legitimate basis for comparison because of the dubiety of the facts, Dean said. Wagstaff removed the chart from his Facebook page within 18 hours of receiving Dean’s email, as Dean had requested.
Wagstaff said he appealed the violation because he did not believe the penalty to be legitimate.
“I didn’t intend for it to be negative campaigning. I thought it was something positive to give voters information that they wouldn’t be able to get by just looking at a campaign site,” Wagstaff said. “I just wanted to provide info that both the USG has and the public has access to in the form of Senate handouts and minutes,” Wagstaff said.
Wagstaff appealed the decision with the support of seven USG members on Tuesday evening: in addition to Sharp, U-Council executive committee representative Elektra Alivisatos ’14, Class of 2013 senator Andrew Blumenfeld, Class of 2013 senator Erin Byrne, U-Councilor and vice presidential candidate Elan Kugelmass ’14, undergraduate life chair Adi Rajagopalan ’13 and academics chair Steven Rosen ’13.