The wording of the official document governing VUWSA and Salient proved to be a contentious issue a week ago, with accusations emerging of unconstitutional conduct and threats of injunction.
Last week’s Salient, distributed after voting in the VUWSA general elections began on Friday, September 21, contained a number of stories regarding the actions of A-Team members.
On the Saturday afternoon prior to the release of last week’s issue, Salient Visual Arts Editor Nick Archer was contacted by the A-Team’s Presidential candidate Lukas Schroeter, who enquired about the magazine’s content.
“[He] asked if stories involving the A-Team were coming out [in the issue],” Archer says.
“I explained to him that there were and [that] he needed to talk to (VUWSA Treasurer and Publications Committee Chairman) Alexander Neilson to clarify any constitutional issues.”
“His main concern was that they’re unable to make any response to articles because it would be construed as campaigning (which is disallowed by the Constitution).”
Schedule 2, clause 54 of the VUWSA Constitution regulates conduct during an election, with 54a stating: “[No person shall] in any way interfere with any elector…with the intention of influencing him/her or advising him/her how as to how to vote.”
54b reads: “[No person shall] print, distribute or deliver to any person or place in the University anything having thereon any matter likely to influence any vote…unless hereinbefore provided.”
According to the A-Team, Salient’s editorial independence as granted by its Charter still remains subject to the Constitution and its inclusion of news articles about candidates was in violation of this clause.
That night, Neilson received a telephone call from Schroeter. “He wanted advice… to see if Salient had complied with the rules and [about] what they could do.”
It is believed that Schroeter and the A-Team were under the impression that the Publications Committee had the authority to withhold Salient’s publication rights – effectively imposing an injunction. Lawyer and former VUWSA Treasurer Graeme Edgeler however points out that the Committee has no power over Salient’s contents.
“The only thing that could actually enjoin Salient from going out is a High Court order.”
Salient editor Steve Nicoll was contacted by Schroeter on Sunday, whose request to view a copy of last week’s Salient before its publication was denied. “He said he believed Salient was acting unconstitutionally.”
Nicoll also received a call from the A-Team’s campaign manager, Jordan Williams, who Nicoll says “was very angry. He threatened to take legal action against Salient and [myself] personally for defamation.”
According to Schroeter, Salient has limited editorial independence, despite its Charter as outlined in the Constitution granting its editor the power to “determine the form and content of Salient with complete freedom from political interference.”
Schroeter denied any intention by the A-Team to enjoin Salient.
“Any suggestion that we were going to is rubbish.”
Schroeter added that the A-Team did not have sufficient funds to finance a legal action and noted, “it also doesn’t look good politically for us to injunct Salient.”
“The Charter says that Salient is free only from political interference,” he says, “[but] the VUWSA Constitution still applies [to it].”
He criticized the wording of the Constitution, describing it as “crap.”
Nicoll, however, argues that the inclusion of the “hereinbefore” in the respective clause means that Salient is still governed by its Charter than by the conflicting areas in the Constitution – a point supported by Edgeler.
Furthermore, Edgeler points out that the heading of clause 54 of the Constitution – Electors and Applicants – “makes it clear that [the clause] only applies to those who are voting and those who are running. Salient just simply isn’t covered in this.”
“A look at [past issues of Salient] will show you that this editorial independence has also included the freedom to publish news and opinion – even damaging to a candidate – during election week.”
Neilson said that he had made a suggestion to Nicoll to abstain from publishing letters to the editor and opinion pieces that presented only one side of an argument, but supported news articles that provided both arguments.
However, Schroeter contends that while news articles may contain two opposing arguments, “quotes can be taken out of context” by the journalist and their meanings effectively compromised.
Nicoll defended the decision to run the news stories involving candidates, believing that they were in the interests of the public. “They were fair and balanced and I stand by them.”
“For me, the distinction is between informative coverage and propaganda. We have a responsibility to the public, not the candidates.”
When contacted amidst reports that she had spent six hours on the telephone with a lawyer over the weekend to investigate the legal possibility of enjoining Salient herself, Returning Officer Andrea Reeves declined to comment. Asked whether she had received any pressure from the A-Team to do so, she responded, “Any discussions between me and candidates are just that, between only me and candidates.”
“I am not prepared to give Salient any information given their inability to report the truth.”
Continuing disputes about election conduct can be presented to an election committee for resolution at the end of an election. Whether the A-Team intends to pursue the matter remains unseen.