Two SGA senators resign, cite free speech suppression, others concerned over diversity comments

Two+SGA+senators+resign%2C+cite+free+speech+suppression%2C+others+concerned+over+diversity+comments

Courtesy of SGA's Twitter

Two senators resigned from the Student Government Association (SGA) Sunday night after controversy broke out over comments one of them made while speaking about diversity and SGA on a student podcast last week.

Mo Zaidan, former senator for the Class of 2023, and Jenna Zampitella, former senator for the Class of 2022, informed SGA E-Board members of their resignation via email late Sunday night. Both senators told The Journal that they resigned over concerns that their free speech was being attacked by members of SGA.

“This whole incident has been one of the biggest failures for SGA in recent memory,” Zaidan told The Journal. “Minority opinion needs to be respected,” he said, referring to his views.

Zaidan faced backlash from SGA senators over comments he made while appearing on an Oct. 14 episode of “Straight No Chaser,” a podcast run by several Suffolk University students.

At the start of the episode, Zaidan discussed his recent election to SGA, along with his goal to lower tuition increases. He called SGA a “completely useless, burdensome student government,” and said the organization needs to focus on making Suffolk more affordable.

“I feel like nothing gets done,” Zaidan said on the show. “(SGA) is dysfunctional, there is no transparency, and none of the things people actually, genuinely care about are actually talked about. That’s the truth. So I decided we’re going to run.”

While on the show, Zaidan said students “do not care” about issues taken up by SGA pertaining to “student affairs, events or bathrooms.” He also spoke about a diversity training he attended during a Sept. 25 orientation for SGA senators.

“They say we need this (diversity training),” Zaidan said on the podcast. “We go inside — and this just shows you it’s all left-wing ideologues — we go into the diversity training… and this ideologue leftist is teaching us through this whole thing and she, no not she, they, they identified as they, so I’m going to call them they… I’m not going to play these games, I’m going to call them they… they said that they had a list of trigger words.”

The list of trigger words included “All Lives Matter,” “rioter” and “illegal immigrant,” which Zaidan argued are simply “true technical terms.” He also said during the podcast that the training was “absurd and unnecessary.”

“Almost half the students in (SGA) aren’t white, a bunch of students are gay… and almost, and like, most of it’s women,” Zaidan said on the show. “So I don’t know how much of this is really necessary, but that’s beside the point.”

Zaidan said in an interview with The Journal that this comment was made as a joke, saying that this statement applies to him since he is not white.

“I get if people didn’t understand that though, we’re still people,” he told The Journal.

Cecilia Gonzalez, senator for the Class of 2022, said during Thursday’s SGA meeting that Zaidan’s comments were “extremely concerning.”

“Diversity training is a resource for us, as student representatives and leaders to educate ourselves on different topics so that we can better understand one another and our constituencies,” said Gonzalez.

Xin Yi Yap, senator for the Class of 2021, echoed Gonzalez’s sentiments during the meeting.

“I think everybody here is trying to — or at least the people who spoke up — are trying to remind, especially freshman and sophomores in SGA, that we are a place where we are an inclusive environment,” Yap said at the meeting. “They are not here to exclude anybody… and oppressive behavior, including speech, is unacceptable.”

Fellow senator Sabrina Liu, Class of 2023, was the first to bring up Zaidan’s remarks at SGA’s meeting Thursday. Liu said she found Zaidan’s comments to be “grossly unprofessional and completely unfair.”

Following the initial statements by Liu and Gonzalez, a conversation between the senators continued until the end of the meeting.

“I’m actually okay with what I said. Everything I said, I believe in,” Zaidan said at one point during the meeting.

Zaidan spoke without first asking to be called on several times during the meeting, insisting that he should be able to directly respond to senators who criticized him after they made their statements.

“I would argue interrupting someone without speaking  —  I did have to do a point of order to correct it — would definitely be a decorum violation,” SGA Vice President Lukas Phipps told The Journal.

However, Zaidan was not the only senator who technically violated decorum. According to Phipps, other senators violated SGA procedures that call for senators to address the meeting’s chair when speaking, not addressing other senators specifically, in most circumstances.

“There’s some really decent people in there, mind you, very decent people,” Zaidan told The Journal. “But a lot of the people in there just full heartedly attacked me… Really not on any basis, just for the sake of it, it felt like.”

Open forum discussion continued until the meeting had to officially adjourn at 2:20 p.m., when activities period ended. SGA President Karine Kanj said SGA members stayed on the call to continue the conversation unofficially, as everything said after the adjournment time was off the record.

“The conversation during open forum was just so heavy on everyone that I didn’t want anybody to leave feeling overwhelmed or (for this) to continue on meeting after meeting, or seeing forms of misunderstandings happening on social media,” Kanj said told The Journal.

After Thursday’s SGA meeting, a group of 16 senators sent Phipps a request for a special meeting to discuss Zaidan’s remarks and violation of procedural rules.

“Removal wasn’t off the table but it certainly wasn’t the only option….” said Class of 2021 Senator Kostas Loukos, who wrote the letter calling for a special meeting, in an interview with The Journal. “If it came to that it would have been different for different people. I didn’t call the meeting to talk about (Zaidan’s) political ideology. It was called to talk about the lack of decorum in the meeting.”

Zaidan told The Journal he believed that this meeting would be used to impeach him from the senate.

“I had to resign forcefully because if I didn’t resign, I’d be impeached and banished from student government in totality,” Zaidan said. “At least at the minimum, resigning allows me to possibly come back at a later date. I had no intention of resigning otherwise.”

Phipps scheduled the special meeting for Oct. 19 and sent out the information and the schedule for the meeting in an email to all senators. However, the meeting was canceled after Zaidan’s resignation.

Phipps told The Journal there had been no official discussion about removing Zaidan, and that he did not receive any request from senators to censure him. A motion to censure Zaidan could have prevented him from speaking at SGA meetings for no more than two weeks, while still being able to vote and raise points of inquiry, according to Phipps.

“Under our [SGA] current guidelines, beyond stuff that is covered by administration or SJRB, there is no explicitly stated degree as to what is a removable offense or what isn’t,” said Phipps.

Despite this, Phipps said a member can be removed for three unexcused absences from SGA meetings, an academic violation or other violations of university standards.

Zampitella resigned from SGA in support of Zaidan, claiming that the organization was suppressing free speech. She sent a letter about why she resigned to all SGA members Sunday night.

A letter sent by former SGA Senator Jenna Zampitella to other senators announcing her resignation Sunday night.

“We see everyone as equals. We respect others’ opinions. We are not racist, we are not homophobic, we are not those terrible words,” Zampitella said in an interview with The Journal. “What it really comes down to is they preach diversity, they preach inclusivity, but when you all of a sudden disagree with them and speak out for your own opinion, this is exactly what happens.”

Zampitella also said she did not feel like she had the space to share her views while she was a senator without facing backlash.

“Mo and I have the minority opinion, and we didn’t agree with a lot of the things that they were doing,” Zampitella said. “We spoke out and now we’re no longer on the SGA, and I think that it shows a greater issue with the organization that needs to be addressed.”

Kanj said every person’s opinions and values are welcomed in SGA.

“One end (of this argument) felt like they were in the minority, but really I think both ends felt like they were in the minority at some point because what the majority of the people were arguing wasn’t about the political beliefs, it wasn’t about the values and the morals. It was more about how it was executed,” Kanj told The Journal. ”Some people were hurt.”

Kanj also said that while SGA has no political affiliation, the organization does affiliate itself with Suffolk University and its core values of diversity and inclusion.

“There has never really been an incident like this before and I really hope there is never an incident like this again. It’s definitely eye-opening and something that SGA is going to use to move forward, be better and grow more transparent…” she said. “All views are always welcome, just please make sure you’re taking into consideration how other people feel.”