Opinion of the Court
MIAMI UNIVERSITY STUDENT COURT
ASG Elections Committee
Petition for review of the 3/13/2017 ASG Election Committee decision to impose Level One Election Violations upon the Appellant.
Decided: March 13, 2017
Present for Appellant: AUSTIN WORRELL.
Present for Appellee: JACK FERIK, BRANDON FOGEL, and ANNIE LAZARSKI, representatives of the ASG Election Committee.
Before Chief Justice Henry Leaman, Chief Justice Pro Tempore Bella Seeberg, Senior Justices Imokhai Okolo and Addison Caruso, and Justices Morgan Mendenhall, Julia Pair, Max Trubiano, Lucy Eisgruber, and Chase Shelton.
Austin Worrell appeals the 3/13/17 decision by the ASG Elections Committee, regarding a level one violation of the ASG Elections Rules, specifically, Section III.h.i.1.c. In a 5-4 vote, the Student Court sides with the Appellant, and reverses the decision by the ASG Election Committee.
On March 11th, 2017, ASG Candidate for President, and Appellant, Austin Worrell witnessed a friend burning campaign memorabilia for an opposing candidate. Worrell’s friend began to burn a tee shirt for the McCarthy – Creber ticket, and Worrell began to film the incident on his phone. Worrell recorded the incident through Snapchat, rather than using the camera on his phone. Snapchat is a photographic messaging service that sends both direct messages to others, and posts photographs on pubic-to-friends page, on a “Snapchat Story.” Worrell alleges that he then sent the Snapchat to ten individuals, and both parties agree that the Snapchat video was not posted on his Snapchat story. Another student, whose name was not given at the Student Court hearing, screenshotted Worrell’s snapchat, and provided it to the McCarthy campaign. The record reports that Hannah McCarthy then approached Austin Worrell over the issue, and no further developments were made.
Days later, on March 13th, 2017, the Worrell Campaign notified the ASG Election Committee (the Committee) that individuals were distributing McCarthy – Creber campaign flyers in King library. This was in violation of Section V. B. of the ASG Presidential Campaign rules. The Committee subsequently sanctioned the McCarthy campaign under a level one violation. Within the hour, the Appellant alleges that the McCarthy campaign notified the Committee of the Snapchats sent a few days earlier. The Committee then ruled in a 5-4 ruling that the Appellant’s actions were in violation of Section III.h.i.1.c, which reads that “Campaign violations . . . Level 1 violations consist of, but are not limited to: . . . [u]sing public electronic media in an inappropriate manner.”
(1) Did the Appellant use public electronic media in an inappropriate manner, and (2) is Snapchat messaging public electronic media?
Chief Justice Henry Leaman
In evaluating Section III.h.i.1.c, the Court identifies two elements. First, did the Appellant use electronic media inappropriately? Second, is Snapchat public electronic media under III.h.i.1.c?
I. Appellant used electronic media inappropriately.
The Court was unanimous in that Worrell inappropriately used electronic media. However, the Court held that Snapchat direct messages are not public. Based on this second element, we reverse the Committee’s decision.
Snapchat is a messaging service that sends photographs in two ways. First, it sends photographs to specific individuals, or groups of individuals, with the photo displaying for only a set amount of time. Only the recipients of that message can receive those messages. Second, individuals can post photos for 24 hours on their Snapchat Stories, and those photos are accessible to anyone who adds the creator on Snapchat. The Appellant did not use the Story feature, so the Court focuses solely on the direct messaging function.
The Court was unanimous that taking part in the burning of an opponent ticket’s tee shirt so close to the election is inarguably inappropriate and disrespectful. Such behavior is unfitting for a member of the Associated Student Government. The Student Court is tasked with interpreting the ASG Constitution, the ASG Bylaws, and reviewing the decisions of the ASG Elections Committee. The Appellant’s conduct is certainly inappropriate, and the Committee did not err in their finding of this element. They erred in their application of the second element: is Snapchat direct messaging public electronic media under III.h.i.1.c?
II. Snapchat is not public electronic media under III.h.i.1.c.
Here, the Court found a likely comparison to the text messages. Text messages are private communications between individuals and groups, and are not accessible outside of those groups. The same holds with Snapchats: members of the general public could not access Worrell’s video under the direct message function.
The Committee contested this notion on the ground that ten individuals received the video, including those who are not Miami University students. The receiving forum and method of dissemination is relevant, while the identity of the recipients is not. If President Crawford was to send a text message to ten people, whether it be his best friends or his coworkers, those messages would not be public. The Committee argued that ten people was sufficient to qualify the messages as public. The Court holds otherwise: those messages could not be accessible to anyone other than those individuals, unless a recipient screenshotted a portion of the video and disseminated that screenshot.
The Committee argued that the ability to screenshot and further disseminate the material made the Snapchat public in use. The Dissenting Justices argue similarly; however, the Court holds that the focus is on Worrell’s actions, rather than his recipients’ actions. Again, a similar comparison could be made about a text message with President Crawford. If President Crawford made inappropriate statements in a group message of only ten people, and the Miami Student received a copy and leaked it, then the Students’ dissemination does not alter whether Crawford’s use of electronic media was public in nature. The focus is on the original creator’s publication, not his recipients’ publication.
Because the Majority holds that Snapchat direct messages are private media, there is no way for the Committee to hold Worrell accountable for an inappropriate use of public electronic media. THE FINDING OF THE COMMITTEE IS REVERSED.
CONCURRING IN I; DISSENTING IN THE JUDGEMENT AND II.
Senior Justice Imokhai Okolo
The Dissenting Justices concur with the Majority that the Appellant’s use of electronic media was inappropriate. We dissent with respect to the second element, whether the Appellant’s use of Snapchat was public electronic media.
In deciding whether Mr. Worrell’s actions violated Section III.h.i.1.c of the Associated Student Government Election Rules the Court looked at whether or not Mr. Worrell’s Snapchat was used in a public manner. The Court ruled in favor of the appellant because there is a level of privacy with direct messages on Snapchat, similar to a text message, but when looking at the facts of this case we dissent in the majority ruling.
The dissenting Justices believe that when Mr. Worrell disseminated the Snapchat he had no perceived reasonable expectation of privacy. Mr. Worrell argued he sent the messages to only 10 individuals, however evidence presented questions the reliability of that claim. Seeing the committee had a wider range of facts, we stand by their claim not challenging the amount of people Mr. Worrell disseminated the Snapchat to. We believe that when Mr. Worrell sent the Snapchat he had no intentions of his actions being privileged or some kind of secret between him and his friends. The video was sent to share with others. Clearly the Snapchat went public. When Mr. Worrell sent the snap chat he could have reasonably assumed the possibility of it being screenshotted and sent to others. We do not believe a case can be made for someone sending a Snapchat to 10 individuals and claim for that information to be private. The sharing of information between this many individuals clearly has the potential to, and in this case did, reach people in the public domain.
For these reasons we dissent.