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Friday, September 21, 2018

Guest Commentary

Former SGA president: Perry should focus on energy, not college politics


U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is supposed to be running part of the nation’s government, but he seems obsessed with a college government instead.

In early March, Texas A&M University elected its first openly gay student body president, Bobby Brooks. However, Brooks actually received the second most votes and was only declared the winner after the top vote receiver was disqualified for violating A&M’s election rules (the candidate failed to report a campaign expense).

Rick Perry decided he disagreed with the outcome and published an opinion article in the Houston Chronicle on March 22 that criticized the college students involved.

Yes, you read that correctly — a member of the U.S. President’s Cabinet wrote an article that criticized college students (and included specific students’ names) over the result of a student government election.

Setting aside the appropriateness of this for a moment, Perry was factually wrong in many of his allegations.

First, Perry wrote the disqualification of the top vote getting candidate was handled “by the SGA Election Commission and Judicial Court through a process that — at best — made a mockery of due process and transparency.” However, the disqualified candidate received two separate appeals that were open to the public and resulted in 13 pages of detailed court opinions explaining the decisions.

Just because Perry disagrees with the outcome doesn’t mean that there wasn’t due process and transparency — respecting courts’ opinions even when we don’t agree with them is part of what holds our country together.

Perry continued, saying, “At worst, the SGA allowed an election to be stolen outright.” At that point, Perry was accusing the court and election commission of corruption — a serious charge that should require some form of evidence, not simple disagreement.

But Perry provided no evidence — he even claimed that the election commission did not “conduct an investigation” before disqualifying the offending candidate, despite the election commission including publicly-available links to evidence (including photos, statements and videos) that the commission relied on when making their decision (in other words, an investigation). Perry can disagree with the methods or result of the investigation, but stating that there was no investigation is objectively false.

It was also interesting to observe the hypocrisy of Perry’s attack on the A&M student government’s judicial branch. Perry said: “In its opinion, the Judicial Court admitted that the charges were minor and technical, but, incredibly, chose to uphold the disqualification…”

Perry is correct that the court did state this — to be specific, the court acknowledged that the violation appeared “innocuous” and wrote: “While the casual observer might find the decision of the Commissioner and this Court unreasonably officious, our decision rests squarely upon the written text of the Regulations.”

This approach would be considered “textual” or “letter of the law.” This style of law interpretation is often associated with conservatives, while liberals are generally seen as preferring a more “contextual” or “spirit of the law” approach.

During Perry’s 14 years as the Governor of Texas, he appointed hundreds of judges. His appointments are known as firm conservatives that favor a textual interpretation of the law.

Perry has been vocal about opposing “judicial activism,” where judges make rulings based on what they think a law should say, as opposed to what it actually says. For example, Perry wrote in his book, “Fed up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington,” that the Fourteenth Amendment has been “abused by the Court to carry out whatever policy choices it wants to make in the form of judicial activism.”

Given his appointments and statements, there’s no doubt that Perry believes that justices should apply a textual interpretation to laws, so why is he now attacking A&M’s judicial branch for doing exactly that? Perry’s problem is with A&M’s election rules, but for some reason he’s directing that frustration at the college students on the court — even though they appear to share Perry’s values.

It was disappointing to see Perry use this situation to attack “diversity.” Perry’s opinion was titled “Perry: Did A&M shun due process in the name of ‘diversity?’” In the article, Perry wrote that the candidate who was disqualified by A&M’s judicial branch and election commission was only disqualified to cause the school to have their first openly gay student body president.

Specifically, Perry said, “It is difficult to escape the perception that this quest for ‘diversity’ is the real reason the election outcome was overturned,” before questioning if a black and/or gay candidate would have been disqualified for committing the same offenses as the heterosexual white candidate who was disqualified.

Perry then answered his own rhetorical question, saying: “We all know that the administration, the SGA and student body would not have permitted such a thing to happen. The outcome would have been different if the victim was different.”

Again, some form of evidence should accompany an accusation like that, but Perry provided none. His statements feel politically motivated, as opposed to any form of an objective opinion that “we all” agree on.

Perry either doesn’t understand or respect the powerful platform he has as a top official of the U.S. government. His article (which makes assertions very loosely based on objective facts) will have real consequences for the three college students he calls out by name. While Perry may forget about the situation in the next few days, the students involved will likely receive hate mail and threats from around the country for the next month or more.

As someone who has been through that, there is an unseen and ugly side of these kinds of news stories. While most readers view an article and move on, a small but sizable number of readers decide they must take things into their own hands without taking the time to investigate the situation from an unbiased perspective. They email, write letters and make phone calls filled with obscene and disgusting insults or threats against their target or their target’s family.

Perry is entitled to express his opinions, but with great power comes great responsibility. He must understand the impact his words have. This situation calls into question Perry’s focus on his job and damages his professional reputation.

Guest columnnist Shane Smith is an economics senior and the president of the 53rd SGA Administration. He can be reached at [email protected]

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