According to an article in Florida International University student-run publication Panther NOW, petitioners in busy parts of campus have verbally harassed and coerced students while gathering signatures for efforts connected to the future of sports betting in Florida.
“These petitioners are legitimately harassing students, meaning they are going to them, insisting and calling them different names and curse words,” David Luis, a Student Government Association senator at FIU, said in an article published Tuesday quoting various students.
A petition photographed in the story was allegedly handed out Sept. 22 within a classroom and is tied to the measure sponsored by Florida Education Champions (FEC), a political action committee financed by DraftKings and FanDuel. That petition seeks to allow statewide mobile sports betting by qualified commercial interests. The effort will require 223,000 signatures before the ballot proposal can reach the attorney general for a fiscal analysis and the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion before it can go on the November 2022 ballot as a constitutional amendment question.
However, as signature-gathering efforts are underway for multiple petitions connected to gambling-related initiatives, there appears to be confusion about how each group is conducting itself on FIU’s campus in Miami. The photos within the Panther NOW story also show a booth manned by two persons with four images that contain the text “Support The Seminoles Compact” and “Sign Petition Here.” One of the individuals pictured in that photo is also shown pictured in the Green Library Breezeway, despite university policy prohibiting signature gathering within 50 feet of FIU libraries.
Petitioners at FIU have harassed and coerced students to obtain fake and repeated signatures, according to some students.
Read more at the link in bio. pic.twitter.com/021JQ6Uhdk
— PantherNOW (@_PantherNOW) October 5, 2021
A spokesperson for the FEC, Christina Johnson, told Sports Handle Thursday that paid petition gatherers for FEC’s ballot initiative have not appeared on the FIU campus since mid-September, which would be after the harassment described in the Panther NOW report.
“Florida Education Champions have not had an organized presence of paid petition gatherers on the Florida International University campus since mid-September due largely in part by other groups using irresponsible, threatening and potentially criminal, signature-gathering practices,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, representatives for the Seminoles’ petition have remained on the campus, “in a location that meets university guidelines,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesperson for the Seminoles.
“We are aware of the FIU article and our team has already followed up to ensure all representatives continue to act appropriately, including being courteous and respectful at all times,” Bitner said. “It’s important to note that no accusations of bad behavior have been made toward anyone working on behalf of the Seminole Compact.
“They obtained permission in advance to be on the FIU campus and they have been focused on obtaining pledges of support for the compact as part of an overall public awareness and education effort that includes a statewide digital and broadcast advertising campaign.”
Multiple petitions, multiple concerns
Separate from verbal harassment as well as an allegation of sexual harassment in the story — sexual comments toward [women], complimenting their bodies, per the report — it is illegal in both Miami Dade County (as of 2018) and the state of Florida (as of 2019) to pay signature-gatherers per signature, as opposed to paying gatherers hourly, which is permitted.
According to the Panther NOW report, petitioners on the Modesto A. Maidique Campus in West Miami-Dade County said they were paid per signature.
“[Petitioners] seem to be getting more and more aggressive towards students,” said Daniel Jones, a sophomore studying international business at FIU. “They’ll chase students down as they walk through the Green Library (GL) breezeway. … If you don’t want to sign their petition, they use very vulgar language.”
It is unclear if any additional allegations of harassment in signature-gathering efforts in general have continued since the campus article. The Florida International University media relations office referred an inquiry to the FIU Police Department, which did not immediately respond.
Also according to the Panther NOW report, some petitioners actually entered and interrupted a Crisis Communications class and a Finite Math lecture to obtain signatures, confusing both students and one professor who assumed the petitioning was sanctioned by the university.
To be sure, petitioning is activity protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which was noted by FIU Police Chief Alexander Casas. He told the school paper that, for that reason, “we do not ask if persons collecting signatures are being paid to do so.” Casas also said that the department would assign officers to the areas of campus where petitioners usually visit campus.
The third gambling-related petition for which signature-gathering efforts are underway is 21-15, which would authorize a limited number of new casinos. This initiative is backed by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which has donated $17 million to the Florida political action committee Florida Voters in Charge, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. The elections website does not show any valid signatures yet for that initiative.
Campuses and tailgates
Both the Sands-supported and FEC-backed initiatives would, if they gain the required 891,589 signatures, make the November 2022 ballot. Signatures must be submitted to the state for verification by Jan. 2, 2022, and verified by Feb. 1, 2022, in order for an initiative to get on the November ballot. Once there, they would need a 60% majority to make the constitutional amendments effective. These ballot initiatives require that signature-gatherers and circulators register with the Secretary of State and provide information such as names, addresses, dates of birth, and a circulator affidavits.
The Seminoles’ petition is not aimed at amending the state constitution, but is apparently more symbolic in nature. Petitioners for that measure have appeared on at least one other campus — the University of Central Florida located in East Orlando.
According to a Sept. 16 report in NSM Today, published by students from UCF’s Nicholson School of Communications, canvassers visited campus in early September to gather signatures in response to lawsuits challenging the Seminoles’ compact, which would allow the tribe to have an effective monopoly on statewide mobile sports betting.
From the story: “The canvassers said they sought the signatures of UCF students to demonstrate to the federal court that there is public support, in hopes of bypassing the lawsuit.”
That sweeping new 30-year compact executed in April would deliver Florida annual $500 million payments from the Seminoles. The compact also allows the tribe to offer sports betting at physical sportsbooks at its six casinos in the state, and the legality of that part of the compact is not disputed. The compact was approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior on Aug. 6, but multiple lawsuits are now challenging its validity for other reasons.
But it is unclear if the canvassers supporting the compact, or any who have appeared on the FIU campus on behalf of the Seminoles’ effort, are being paid by signature, or hourly, or at all.
As for the FEC’s ballot initiative, a heavy lift for which time is of the essence, its effort continues. The group has so far validated nearly 29,000 signatures with 100,000 pending as of Sept. 27.
Johnson said: “Florida Education Champions is leading its signature-gathering efforts across the state through digital ads, direct mail, and via petition gatherers going door-to-door and at collegiate and professional sporting events and locations to collect the more than 890K valid petitions needed by Florida’s Feb. 1, 2022 deadline.”
On at least the one campus, though, the streams have crossed and confusion abounds. This is not only a higher education lesson but instructive for all: Read the fine print.