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For some student-leaders, navigating the terrain of personal beliefs can be tricky

While MSA has to remain nonpartisan in order to receive school funding, many representatives of the group are opposed to self-censorship.
Minnesota Student Association President Abeer Syedah speaks in support of Hillary Clinton at Northrop Auditorium on Oct. 4, 2016 ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders speech.
Image by Maddy Fox
Minnesota Student Association President Abeer Syedah speaks in support of Hillary Clinton at Northrop Auditorium on Oct. 4, 2016 ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ speech.

For Minnesota Student Association to maintain its school funding, the group must remain nonpartisan and strive to represent the entire student body.

Still, many of the group’s members, as well as its student body presidents, have endorsed political candidates or expressed opinions on contentious issues — but only in what they say is a personal capacity.

While it can be tricky to decipher the distinction between MSA members’ personal and organizational actions, student-leaders say those involved in student government shouldn’t have to censor their beliefs.

MSA Government and Legislative Affairs Committee Director Will Dammann said he keeps his role in student government separate from his outside work for the Minnesota Republican Party.

“If I’m representing MSA, I’m being nonpartisan … [and] advocating for student interest,” he said. “I put any personal beliefs aside.”

And it would be unreasonable to ask members to restrict their personal activities, Dammann said.

“We don’t want to limit [anyone],” Dammann said. “If they want to go out and introduce a candidate of one party, they should be allowed to do that. If I want to go to a political rally, it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, you’re in this [official] capacity now, you can’t go express your views.’ I don’t think that’s fair.”

MSA President Abeer Syedah has come under fire for her outspoken progressive views, and University administrators have received complaints — especially about her social media accounts — but she isn’t breaking any rules, she said.

“My Twitter does say that my views are my own,” she said. “My opinions don’t represent MSA as a whole.”

Syedah’s featured post on her Twitter account reads, “Friendly reminder that ‘tattling’ about my social media posts to the University does nothing. I only answer to the student body.”

Political science junior David Munson said he doesn’t see MSA or its leadership as overtly political.

“[Abeer] was elected to be president. Those are her views [that] people wanted,” he said.

MSA At-Large Representative Christina Jensen said Syedah’s political inclinations don’t merit attention from other students.

“Her social media posts are her own opinions, and those opinions do not interfere with her work with MSA,” she said.

She said her beliefs shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody.

“I’ve never hidden my personal views, ever. I was known for them, so I [hadn’t] anticipated anyone believing that those were not a part of me when I was … elected,” she said.

Since taking office, Syedah has spoken to crowds during Democratic rallies and more recently was involved in a protest after a “Build the Wall” panel was painted onto the Washington Avenue Bridge. She says she partook in these events in a personal capacity.

Members of MSA can participate in any political activity — and many do — as long as they don’t take sides in their official organizational roles, Syedah said.

“I had spoken at the Bernie Sanders rally, and that was something I was doing in my personal capacity,” Syedah said.

MSA adviser Sara Carvell said members can’t endorse a candidate as an organization, but individuals can on their own.

It’s more important that staff in the Office of Student Affairs and Student Unions and Activities can make the distinction between MSA representation and the private lives of its members, Syedah said, because MSA must remain nonpartisan to receive its funding.

Nursing senior Alexis Luedtke said MSA doesn’t come across as supporting one ideology over another, but members should still be cautious.

“I think it’s a very gray area that you should be careful of — to avoid pushing a segment of the student body away,” she said.

Syedah said she isn’t the only Big Ten student body president that is open about their political leanings and activism.

Rachel Zuckerman, president of the University of Iowa Student Government, said her title as president has never stopped her from engaging in national politics.

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