Georgetown Students Seek to Invalidate Slavery Reparations Referendum, Constitutional Council to Hear Case

Two Georgetown University students filed a petition to invalidate the student-approved referendum to pay slavery reparations, saying the option should never have even reached the student body.

On April 11, Georgetown students voted in favor of adding a semesterly fee of $27.20 to tuition costs. The added fee would fund reparations for the descendants of 272 slaves who were sold in 1838 to help pay the university's debts.

Three days after the final votes were counted, Georgetown students Rowan Saydlowski and Chris Castaldi-Moller, both class of 2021, submitted the petition to the university's Constitutional Council. The petition cited three alleged violations of the student association's constitution and bylaws:

  • There was a conflict of interest in the referendum's co-sponsor, Ethics & Oversight Committee Chair Dylan Hughes, also overseeing election complaints;
  • The Election Commission failed to fulfill its duties to execute and oversee the election and referendum;
  • The referendum shouldn't have ever reached the student body.

Saydlowski and Castaldi-Moller argued that since Hughes co-sponsored the referendum, he should have recused himself from overseeing the election. Instead, they wrote, one of the members of the Ethics and Oversight Committee who wasn't a cosponsor or a key opponent should have been the primary overseer.

“It is embarrassing and shameful that the Ethics & Oversight Committee, tasked with ensuring ethical action and avoiding conflicts of interest, would act unethically and ignore obvious conflicts of interest within their own committee,” the petition said.

Hughes told Newsweek that “co-sponsorship does not equate to campaigning or a conflict” and noted that he didn't campaign on either side of the referendum. He stood by his work as chair of the Ethics and Oversight Committee in that he alerted the Election Commission to all complaints, saying he had no “interest or motivation” to withhold them.

“I co-sponsored the referendum because I helped to draft and edit the referendum's technical content, and because I believe it's important for students to be able to vote on and discuss these issues,” Hughes said. “That does not constitute a conflict of interest.”

georgetown university slavery reparations constitutional council
Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. On April 14, the Constitutional Council agreed to hear a case claiming that the outcome of a referendum approving slavery reparations was invalid. Win McNamee/Getty Images

On April 7, the students claimed the Election Commission posted on Twitter that the referendum needed 25 percent of votes in favor to pass. However, the tweet was deleted and a series of other tweets, including one that said the referendum needed a “simple majority” to pass, were posted. That rule change, the petition argued, was not within the Election Commission's authority to make.

Ultimately, the referendum passed with 66 percent of the vote, well over the 25 percent needed, but the students argued that the multiple announcements about what was needed for the referendum to pass “sowed confusion.” Voters, the petition claimed, may have thought abstaining was just as useful as voting “no,” and the confusion may have suppressed the votes of those opposed to the measure.

The students said the election violated Article VII, Section 4 of the Constitution, which dictates referendum content must be presented to the student body at least 14 days prior to the election. Since the voter guide was sent via email on April 4 and the polls closed on April 11, it violated this rule, the petition claimed.

“Therefore, even if the Constitutional Council decides to evaluate this referendum by the rules of the Constitution, its results are also invalid,” the students contested.

Hughes told Newsweek the substance of the suit seemed “dubious at best.” He said the student association held multiple nonbinding referendums in the past, and the Election Commission had acted within its rights to administer the election.

In a unanimous decision, according to The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper, the Constitutional Council decided to hear the case, thereby delaying the student association's confirmation of the referendum's outcome. On Wednesday, the Constitutional Council will hear oral arguments.

“The Constitutional Council recognizes that this case may cause great frustration since it seems to undercut the historic results of the GU272 Referendum,” the council's statement read. “In spite of this perception, the Constitutional Council remains fully dedicated to supporting democracy within the Georgetown University Student Association.”

Saydlowski told Newsweek that he's gathering evidence and testimony and further developing their legal arguments in preparation for Wednesday's hearing. While he couldn't make any predictions on how they might rule, he said they hope the Constitutional Council sides in favor of their claims.

"Regardless of one's perspective on the goals of the referendum, students should all be able to agree that there is nothing more important to any government than ensuring that it follows the laws that regulate it," Saydlowski said.

This article has been updated to include the response from Rowan Saydlowski.