Recording Complaint Stemming from Divestment Debate Dismissed

Student Government Election and Rules Committee said recording did not violate election code

By Sonia Schlesinger

On Tuesday night, the Student Government (SG) Election and Rules (E&R) Committee ruled that SG president-elect Eric Holmberg’s recording of an April 12 College Council (CC) meeting did not violate SG election code.

At the April 12 meeting, current CC Chair Holmberg announced that recording was banned due to the sensitive nature of part of the meeting agenda, which included a discussion and vote on a resolution calling on the University to divest from companies that pro-divestment groups see as complicit in human rights abuses against Palestinians. It later became clear that Holmberg recorded part of the meeting after the secretary, who was responsible for the meeting minutes, left the meeting. He explained to the audience that he would destroy the recording after the meeting.

The complaint, filed to E&R by CC member Mike Viola, alleged that Holmberg’s recording violated Illinois eavesdropping law and gave his slate an election advantage.

“This violation of custom leaves open the question of what happened to the recording in between the time the recording was taken and delivered to the secretary,” Viola explained at the hearing. “This allows them to tailor the minutes in a way that harms opponents or to tailor the description of the amendments [to the resolution].”

Viola specifically cited the fact that second-year Unite & Support candidate Sara Zubi’s initials were not included in the meeting minutes, as he said was “custom,” and she was instead referred to only as a “Palestinian second-year.” E&R ruled, however, that Holmberg’s recording or his use of the recording in recreating the minutes did not give him an advantage in campaigning for SG president over Zubi’s slate.

“The Committee acknowledges that such a recording could be used to advantage a campaign,” read the minutes from Tuesday’s hearing. “Ultimately, we find that no such advantage was conferred.”

Cody Jones, the United Progress candidate for vice president for student affairs, argued at the hearing that allegations of Holmberg’s intent to harm another campaign were unfounded because he did not know who his slate would be running against at the time of the meeting. United Progress and Unite & Support were in the process of collecting signatures, but they had not formally announced their campaigns.

Holmberg claimed to have consulted the Center for Leadership and Involvement (CLI) and the University News Office’s legal team after the April 12 meeting and said that both told him that his recording of the meeting was not illegal. Second-year Max Freedman, E&R chairman, contacted CLI mid-hearing to clarify its role in the recording of the meeting. CLI members confirmed that they had advocated the recording ban but that they had no input in Holmberg’s decision to record the meeting. CLI also said that the News Office legal team did not inform it of contact with Holmberg, but that the legal team would have notified CLI had Holmberg consulted it. When reached for comment, Holmberg wrote in an email, Our line of communication was not directly with the News Office. As I understand it, our College Council advisor, Jamila Anderson, communicated with Sarah Cunningham [from CLI], who was in contact with the News Office. Jamila was my point of contact for any information that came through that chain of communication.”

The relevant section of Illinois eavesdropping law outlaws the recording of conversation when there is a “reasonable expectation” that the discussion will remain private. Viola alleged that Holmberg created such an expectation by banning recording, and then broke the law by recording. Freedman said during the hearing that he did not think there was an expectation of privacy.

The ruling, as documented in the meeting minutes, added that in order for the committee to find Viola’s complaint to be an election code violation, Holmberg’s act of recording would need to have met three conditions: that the candidate would have refrained from the activity had it not given him or her an election advantage; that the activity was done with the intent of advantaging one’s own campaign or disadvantaging another; and  that the activity was illegal.

“You say the damage inflicted on a campaign is that the minutes referring to Sara Zubi as ‘Palestinian second year’ thereby minimizing her role by not giving proper attribution,” reads the advisory opinion E&R issued to Viola before the meeting. “However, as you say, the custom of using the initials of non-CC members is just that: a custom. There is no rule requiring such attribution, and it is very possible that had the secretary been there, the same attribution would have been used in the minutes.”

Because the committee did not find that the conditions of advantage and intent were met, it did not rule on the question of legality.

The committee also discussed at the hearing the fact that members of CC, including both Viola and Michael Meng of Zubi’s slate, voted unanimously to approve the April 12 meeting minutes at a later meeting even though names of non-SG members were redacted.