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Student tangles with UWM over due process, free speech

A Wednesday court hearing will determine the fate of UWM student M. Samir Siddique, who has been legally entangled with the university since January because of a dispute over student government and rights at the UW-System school.

Siddique, who was an elected senator in UWM’s previous student government body until May 2013, has clashed with university officials over the appointment of a Board of Trustees to oversee the installation of a new school constitution as well as the events surrounding that constitution’s approval. Much of the dispute stems from whether students will have a say in how a large sum of money, designated as segregated students fees, is spent, including the projected $160 million cost of a new student union.

That constitution, which was presented to UWM students over a six day span in January passed with the approval of 77 percent of the students who voted. However, Siddique still contests the results of the vote, citing a lack of substantial support among the student body of approximately 28,000. “Three hundred and one students voted in total, 60-something voted against, 242 voted for,” said Siddique.

Though Siddique admits a “substantial” amount of students is hard to quantify, he says he’ll know it when he sees it. “I don’t think that any referendum will ever get 14,000 students to say ‘yes,’” he said. “What I know is 301 is not a substantial amount of students.”

A possible explanation for the low turnout could be attributed to the manner in which the referendum was publicized and carried out. According to Siddique, an all-school email went out on Jan. 13 or 14, while students were on winter break, stating that the university was forming a new constitution and wanted input from students. “They had no indication that it would be up for a referendum,” he said. “It was, basically, blind-siding us; we had no idea what was happening.”

“They didn’t do any publicizing before,” said Siddique. “It was publicized during the week of. They had, in fact, your coffee would have had a sticker that said, ‘Vote yes in the UWM constitution referendum.’”

The referendum took place over six days, beginning on Jan. 22, students’ first day back from break. Though it was relatively easy to vote – students were sent multiple emails per day over the six days and voting could be done online through pantherLINK – there was no alternative constitution offered and, as a result of the lack of awareness prior to the vote, no opportunity for any legitimate opposition to organize.

“They claim that they had done study groups with student organization members but they had randomly selected 25 percent of the student body and whoever didn’t get chosen didn’t get chosen,” said Siddique. “I wasn’t there, I wasn’t invited. If I were invited I would have gone and I would have told them what my suggestions were, which I’m sure they wouldn’t want to hear.”

The referendum, however, was far from the beginning. According to Siddique, it all began when then-Chancellor Michael Lovell dissolved the student government in May 2013. “I think the biggest step that was taken to, sort of, incite this type of action, or retaliation, or reaction, or whatever you want to call it, was when the chancellor, he said that, ‘I’m not going to recognize the elections.’”

What were the motivations behind that decision? “I’d speculate it to be power, money and subjugation of the student government,” said Siddique.

In more concrete terms, Siddique points back to the issue of segregated fees. “The students at the universities – UW system schools – they have this sort of oversight of what’s called ‘segregated fees.’ Segregated fees are, essentially, all fees that constitute student’s life, service and interest; those three things, if one of those things is an activity that’s being funded, it’s funded through this module, which is the segregated fees. That includes the Klotsche Center, which is our gym – that’s funded completely through segregated fees and it’s a large amount. The U-Pass (student bus passes): segregated fees. All these different components. As well as, if, for example, the university wanted a new student union, it would be segregated fees.”

That pot is about $28 million, annually, as well as the added cost of a new student union, which was approved by UWM students in a 2012 referendum. Siddique doesn’t dispute the need for a new union or the fact that students want one. He says it’s, simply, the classic battle between top-down and bottom-up decision-making. “The problem, or the disagreement, is [university officials] want the committee to be a majority of faculty members and administrators. We want the committee to be a majority of students.”

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So, on January 14th Siddique and an associate filed a court case against the university. Despite the timing, the case by the two students was originally focused on the initial actions of the chancellor in May 2013. “Our legal question wasn’t a declaratory judgment,” said Siddique. “We said, ‘Can the chancellor intervene in student processes?’ Because state statue says students have the right to organize in a manner they determine.”

But, after hearing of the pending referendum, Siddique filed for a Temporary Restraining Order against the university, as well. At that time, the Temporary Restraining Order would have stopped the referendum but the case was dismissed.

“So, after their referendum, this constitution was adopted, right, because they’re like, ‘Look, 77 percent of the students who voted said that they want this constitution; it’s an overwhelming percentage of students.’ We said, ‘Okay, well, we’ll start a petition.’ And so we did; we started a petition and we proposed our own constitution.”

Siddique, along with the help of his friend and a handful of other students – some who decided to get involved after they were approached during the petition process – set out to collect signatures in support of their alternative constitution. Siddique said, in the interests of being fair, they structured the petition in the same way as the referendum: over the course of six days. “We ended up getting, approximately, 1,350 petitions in those six days.”

“The petitions are there to show that there is some support,” said Siddique. “And it’s not just some support, it’s five times the number of people who even participated in [the referendum] and six times the number of people who voted ‘yes.’”

Siddique submitted the finished petition the chancellor in virtual, hard copy and email form minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline. “We said, ‘Here are hard copies of a petition that we just submitted. We would like to call for a referendum comparing both constitutions,’” recalls Siddique.

But, Siddique says, Chancellor Lovell did not recognize or even consider the constitution Siddique’s group submitted, claiming he was satisfied with the processes the other student government, the Student Association at UWM, had used. At this point, the group’s legal council recommended that they go forward with organizing, which they did, holding elections as the UWM Student Association, according to the constitution they had petitioned. Siddique was elected president.

“On June 1st we did what the student government historically does, which is we created recommendations to the Board of Regents who oversee all the UWM system. And we said, look, these are our recommendations for what the segregated fees should be and we made lots of cuts to certain things…and we made some raises, too,” said Siddique.

Siddique sent the recommendations on behalf of the organization and says he specifically stated, in order to avoid any ambiguity, that there were two student governments, clarifying the distinction between the two.

Soon after, however, Siddique received a cease and desist letter from the Student Association at UWM stating that he was violating a number of university policies and threatening referral to the Dean of Students’ office if UWM Student Association failed to take down their Twitter page, Facebook page and website within four days.

Siddique did not comply with their demands. However, as one of the issues cited was confusion between the student organizations, within 24 hours of receiving the letter, the UWM Student Association posted a disclaimer – what Siddique describes as an action taken in good faith – on their website clarifying their organization’s positions and distinction, or lack thereof, within the university. “We said, ‘Look, we don’t want people to be confused; we want them to know what we stand for and what the other people stand for,’” he said.

Less than two weeks later, Siddique received a letter from the Office of the Dean of Students informing him that they were investigating him for four different charges. He was found guilty of three including “disrupting university authorized events,” “making a knowingly false statement” and “violating university branding policy.” University officials said Mr. Siddique was “causing confusion at the university,” claiming he had stated positions and sent correspondences while fraudulently acting as the Student Association at UWM.

He denies the charge. “Now, I’ll concede to this: our names are very similar,” said Siddique. “But the names of the student governments have been a variation of Student Association at UWM, Student Association of UWM and UWM Student Association for the last 50 years. Besides, I didn’t pick the name.”

In regards to “making a knowingly false statement,” Siddique says it was, simply, something he couldn’t avoid because of his belief, at the time. “They said, ‘Mr. Siddique, we’ve told you what the policy is, which student government is recognized, yet you claim to be official,’” he said. “They said, ‘Well, that matter is in court right now and, if we’re found to be wrong, then fine. But, until that time, this is it.’ I was like, ‘No, that’s not how it works. It’s if I’m found to be wrong.’”

As a result of the hearing, Siddique was ordered to “cease to contact all students as the UWM Student Association” and stop contacting anyone related to the university. In addition, he was directed to send an email to 1,300 UWM students, those who signed the petition, disavowing his position and the legitimacy of his organization. All these conditions were to be met in order for Siddique to maintain his student status.

Siddique did not send the email and maintains that the sanctions from the university were not reasonable. “Giving up your First Amendment [rights] isn’t reasonable,” he said.

On Aug. 29, Judge Glenn Yamahiro ordered an injunction, the Shepherd Express reported, shielding Siddique from the disciplinary action by the school. “I can’t tell you what my position is and I can’t tell you which student government I think is legitimate so I won’t do those two things,” he said.

The Sept. 24 hearing will determine whether the disciplinary actions prescribed by university officials were in keeping with due process and the First Amendment right to free speech.

But, in the mean time, Siddique says the university’s actions have had other effects. Currently, there are 30 students united on the original case against the university. But Siddique says he’s gotten calls from students who, now, want to distance themselves. “That’s a pretty significant number (30). Now, I think four or five of them want off because of this.”

Siddique calls it intimidation, plain and simple. “Look, students don’t want to get kicked out of school. Just the threat of kicking them out of school is…it’s the capital punishment of university,” he said. “On top of that, while I’m silenced, when I can’t go out and speak and recruit because the university says ‘if you do that you’re going to be expelled immediately,’ I can’t campaign for my position, I can’t get the word out there, I can’t get more people to sign up for the court case.”

“If this continues, it’ll make our case moot and it’ll destroy any chances of our case standing in court because everybody’s gonna be slowly picked off,” said Siddique.

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Siddique didn’t foresee any of what’s transpired coming and says, honestly, if you would have found him a few months ago he might have been persuaded to let the whole thing go. “I would never have imagined that any of the things – any of the actions I’ve taken, any of the engagements that I’ve been a part of – would, in a million years, have anything to do with my student status,” he said. “To say that I went in knowingly risking my student status is to give me more credit than I deserve.”

At this point, though, he feels like it’s a process he has to see through to the end. “There’s nothing that I dislike more – maybe it’s a personal thing, whatever the case may be – that I dislike more than people taking advantage of other people, using another person’s ignorance or inexperience to trample over them…I think not only was it completely immoral but it was illegal and I think that part of the reason I stuck with it so much was because I had built such a great, sort of, experience from my times in the student government. Seriously, I learned more than I ever could have imagined and more than I’ve learned from most classes that I’ve taken…the practical experience, sort of, dealing with people, figuring people out. These things that I’ve learned, I want all the students to have that in the future and I want them to be able to assert, sort of, what their thought is. Just because we’re students doesn’t mean that we don’t know what’s going on, that we don’t understand how to make complex decisions…decisions that are meaningful.”

Ryan Sorenson, President of the Student Association at UWM, sees it differently, though. “I think it’s kind of sad Samir is still wasting his time on this,” he said in a phone interview. Sorenson went on to list a number of initiatives that his organization has recently passed including a text message alert system for campus emergencies, the reallocation of $4 million for renovations to the Klotsche Center, tuition equity for undocumented students and a campaign to bring a bike-share to campus.

University officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

But Siddique maintains the current, recognized governmental body has no real power. “It’s a rubber stamp,” he said, also claiming that the salaries of a number of administrators are now being paid for out from the segregated student fees, a function they shouldn’t have to account for.

He says that’s not fair to the students. “That’s part of the reason why I think I stuck with this campaign. Because I feel like it’s something that the students should all stand up for – I’ll stand up for it, I’ll stick my neck out…I just wish more students would learn that it’s more important to be…I guess it’s a double-edged sword because, look, you could leave here, the university, with nice letters of recs. What am I gonna leave with at this university? I’m not gonna have a letter of recommendation, not from the people that I am challenging. But what I do know and what I will leave with is my dignity and knowing that, look, I believed in something, I stood up for it and it’s because that’s what I thought was right.”

As a final thought, Siddique invokes a line from Chapter 11 of the Laws and Regulations governing the University of Wisconsin. The Policy of the Board of Regents on Student Freedom states, “We believe that the Great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Siddique agrees. “It’s a beautiful line,” he says. “The problem is it’s just that, it’s a line.”

Update (Sept. 25, 2014): As the result of a Sept. 24 court hearing, Mr. Siddique will not be barred from enrolling for the Spring 2015 semester, most likely his last. In addition, the school committed to not taking any other action, disciplinary or otherwise, against Siddique until his appeal is heard by the UW Board of Regents. You can read the press release, here.

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