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Protests Prompt Do-Over of UH-Hilo Student Elections

Posted May 1, 2014, 06:21 PM HST Updated May 5, 2014, 04:38 PM HST
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An election held last week for positions in the University of Hawaii at Hilo student government has been nullified and will be redone, university officials confirmed today.

Some of the candidates complained Wednesday that they had been improperly disqualified after the University of Hawaii at Hilo Student Association election held April 22-23.

In an open letter to the university, they said that five of the candidates were unfairly accused of violating a section of the school’s voting code prohibiting campaign activity within 200 feet of a polling place.

One of the disqualified candidates, Jarod Campbell, said he and others had been told by administrators that they were a sufficient distance from the polls.

A sixth candidate learned that she had been disqualified for failing to properly fill out paperwork.

In all, seven of the 17 candidates on the ballot ended up being disqualified, they said, including at least one running unopposed. It was not clear why the seventh candidate had been rejected.

According to university spokesman Jerry Chang, a new election will be held via the internet on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 6-7.

Campbell said the disqualified candidates have been reinstated.

“We are allowed to run in the new election,” said the 24-year-old junior environmental studies major from Temecula, Calif.

The letter also claimed that election officials had improperly banned voters from referring to campaign handouts or notes while casting their ballots.

Much of the criticism was directed at Campus Center Director Ellen Kusano, who the students said gave incorrect information to the members of UHHSA’s election committee.

Kusano did not return a call seeking comment.

Chang said the new election was being held “because of all the complaints we received.”

The election dispute is one of several controversies that have struck the UH-Hilo campus recently.

On Monday, a former student filed a lawsuit alleging he was the victim of racial discrimination while working in the Campus Center from 2011 to 2013.

Ian Seeley’s lawsuit accuses three co-workers of calling him a “stupid haole” and making racial comments on social media.

According to the lawsuit, Seeley suffers from a cognitive disability, and was the target of retaliation after he complained about the discrimination. That retaliation included his termination from employment in April 2013.

Named as defendants are UH-Hilo, two administrators including Kusano, and a  former co-worker.

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Kusano is also among the defendants in another lawsuit filed last week alleging that the university violated students’ constitutional rights to free expression.

That lawsuit said students Merritt Burch and Anthony Vizzone, both officers of the UH-Hilo chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, were stopped in January from handing out copies of the UH Constitution during a university-sponsored event to present various student organizations.

The lawsuit said that during the event on the Campus Center Plaza, the two were told that university policy did not allow them to leave their table to approach students.

Later that month, while attending a meeting for registered student organizations, Burch and Vizzone told an administrator they intended to hold a protest against the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods.

The lawsuit said they were then told that the event should be held in a “free-speech zone” in another area of the campus.

It said when the students complained that area had “minimal pedestrian traffic,” Leomi Bergknut, the school’s student leadership development coordinator, told them to do “PR and advertising” to attract students to the protest.

The lawsuit said Bergknut then told them, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore. People can’t really protest like that anymore, times have really changed since the movement back then.”

As a result of the administrators’ actions, Burch and Vizzone “curtailed expressing their believes or distributing literature while on campus for fear of being punished under UH-Hilo policies,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said that preventing the students from freely distributing written materials on campus and limiting their speech activities to certain areas violated the students’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

It seeks a declaration that the university and its officials violated the pair’s First Amendment rights as well as monetary damages to be determined and attorneys’ fees.

Besides Kusano and Bergknut, those named as defendants include the University of Hawaii system, interim UH President David Lassner and UH-Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney.

University officials issued a statement saying the matter is being reviewed.

“The University of Hawai`i at Hilo is committed to free expression and the open exchange of ideas,” the statement said.

“This case involves the application of specific campus policies that were implemented to protect those values while preserving the educational environment for all students.

“UH-Hilo has initiated a review of the policies involved and the manner in which they were enforced. We will make any changes that are needed to ensure that free expression and First Amendment rights are fully protected.”

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys from the Washington DC-based law firm Davis Wright Tremain LLP, and by Honolulu attorney David Rosen.

***Updated 12:27 p.m. Friday, May 2, and 4:35 p.m. Monday, May 5.***

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