Divisions plague ASG after racially insensitive video drops in a group chat
Amid allegations of racist conduct by two student senators and an executive cabinet member, Miami's Associated Student Government (ASG) held a 90-minute closed-door meeting Tuesday, Nov. 13, that appeared to violate Ohio's open-meeting law.
The executive session was called to discuss a two-year-old Snapchat video that has plunged ASG into turmoil.
Two years ago, College of Education, Health and Society Academic Senator Conor Daly and Off-Campus Senator Connor Mallegg were filmed in a Snapchat video singing and dancing along to the song "Ultralight Beam" by Kanye West featuring Chance The Rapper. It is unclear whether they used the racial slur in the song's lyrics -- ASG's own oversight committee cleared the students of wrongdoing, but other members of the body launched a petition to impeach the two senators.
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, Secretary for On-Campus Affairs Mike Meleka sent the two-year-old video from his Snapchat memories in a Snapchat group of current and former ASG members. Meleka had undergone surgery the previous day and was under the influence of heavy painkillers. He claims not to have watched the video before he sent it.
ASG violated Ohio law by closing the meeting to the public without providing an adequate reason. When The Miami Student's reporter asked for the explicit purpose of calling the executive session, Speaker of Senate Cole Hankins refused to provide one.
"When Student Senate approves student organization funding allocations or our internal operating budget, we are required to act as a public body because, in those instances, we are allocating public money derived from student fees," Hankins wrote in an email following the meeting last Tuesday. "Aside from those cases, we are not legally required to act as a public body."
The Ohio Revised Code Section 121.22 lists specific instances when a public body is allowed to call an executive session and bar reporters and other observers from the proceedings. The body must state which of the specified instances is the reason for calling the session.
ASG claims not to be a public body in most circumstances. However, the Ohio Revised Code defines a public body as "any board, commission, committee, council or similar decision-making body of a state agency, institution or authority." Miami University is a state institution, held to these same standards. ASG is a public body at all times, according to the Student Press Law Center.
In a 2001 case, The Cincinnati Enquirer v. City of Cincinnati, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that a body that makes decisions and gives recommendations to a public body must comply with the public meetings law.
Therefore, even if ASG's decisions are not final, they are still bound under the same laws.
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After the video was posted, some members of the Snapchat group chat spoke up, saying the video was offensive. Meleka and Mallegg both apologized to the group chat. Daly was not originally included in the group, but he joined the Snapchat group to apologize and then later left the chat.
"Videos like that, that word, anything that causes damage to the community is just -- it's not acceptable," said Scott Walter, assistant vice president for student affairs and adviser to ASG's Executive Cabinet. "It's not acceptable regardless of the context, regardless of the content."
Walter said he was not consulted as to whether the senators and cabinet member should resign when ASG considered its options in dealing with the situation.
Mallegg said he offered to speak with anyone in the group chat who was hurt by the contents of the video.
"I believe that the riffs [sic] in our community will only be repaired when we, as individuals, start having open, honest and intentional conversations with the goal of reaching mutual understanding," Mallegg wrote in a statement to The Miami Student, "and I am more than willing to have these conversations with anybody who is willing."
After Hankins and Courtney Rose, the Secretary for Diversity and Inclusion, saw the video, they encouraged Daly, Mallegg and Meleka to resign from their positions in ASG, said three members of ASG.
One of the senators reached out to Eric Buller, director of the Harry T. Wilks Leadership Institute and ASG Senate advisor, for advice on how to proceed. Buller said he did not tell the senator what to do but instead advised that the senator consider whether he had uttered the racial slur and to do what he thought was right.
Daly, Mallegg and Meleka decided to follow the investigatory oversight process outlined in ASG's bylaws.
On Friday, Oct. 12, Daly, Mallegg and Meleka were referred to the oversight committee by a member of ASG. Daly recused himself, as he was a member of the committee. Tatum Andres, chair of the committee, stepped down due to a friendship with the senators, and Bradley Davis became acting chair, said a source present at the ASG meeting last Tuesday.
The oversight committee spent a week interviewing the three senators as well as others deemed relevant to the investigation because of their expressed views on diversity. The committee used software to slow down the video and watch it dozens of times. The software allowed the committee to zoom in on each of the senators' faces to determine if they had uttered the racial slur.
On Monday, Oct. 22, the committee released a report stating that Meleka did not violate the ASG bylaws - including Section 502, the nondiscrimination clause, and Section 211.A, stating that the Secretary for On-Campus Affairs should "take responsibility for all activities in the area of on campus life." The committee found that Daly and Mallegg did not violate Section 502 or Section 107.D, which relates to how senators interact with their constituents.
According to the ASG bylaws, the oversight committee is not obligated to produce a report if they find no wrongdoing. Despite this, the committee decided to write one in this instance, in case the issue was debated further in the future, said a member of the oversight committee. The committee wanted to make sure they could not be accused of clearing the senators of any charges due to friendships with either of them.
The oversight committee's decision was directly in line with most of the testimony provided to the committee, as well as what the committee had observed from watching the video numerous times, according to an ASG member. The committee's decision was unanimous.
According to the oversight report, it was not clear whether either senator used a racial slur in the video, and the committee stated that Daly and Mallegg's actions had not affected their ability to serve as senators. The report was sent to the entire senate body, buried on page 19 of a 21-page-long consent calendar.
"There is a process in place that is in the constitution and bylaws, and I think the committee did what it was supposed to do," ASG Senate advisor Eric Buller said. "I thought they followed the process."
Two ASG members said some senators disagreed with the committee's ruling. They felt the issue was not whether Daly and Mallegg had used the racial slur. Rather, these senators argued, the creation of the video could make marginalized students feel unsafe and unable to trust the senators elected to represent them.
"The Oversight Committee has already determined that I have done nothing wrong," Daly wrote in a statement to The Student. "No one should use the highly offensive language involved in this matter, and I did not use it. Therefore, it is inappropriate for the student government or anyone else to ask for an apology for something that I did not do. Nevertheless, my heart goes out to anyone in the Miami community who [is] subjected to and offended by such language."
As a result of this dispute, a group of senators began a petition to hold an impeachment trial for Daly and Mallegg. A number of the senators who created and signed the petition were the same people who testified before the oversight committee stating they did not believe the senators should be punished without absolute proof they had uttered a racial slur.
The group who wrote the petition first began collecting signatures on Monday, Nov. 12, after spending three weeks drafting the petition. That same day, before there were enough signatures to present the petition to the senate, Daly and Mallegg resigned.
"Due to the increased time commitment needed to handle this prolonged situation, I realized I needed to resign in order to focus on my keeping my mental well-being and grades from further declining and jeopardizing my academic scholarship," Mallegg wrote in a separate statement to The Student.
Student Body President Meaghan Murtagh said the executive cabinet called for Meleka's resignation. On Monday, Nov. 19, Meleka sent in his resignation, which will not be effective until Dec. 4, to ensure the committees remain fully staffed.
"In regards to this video, I want to say that -- regardless of my mental state at the time it was released -- I am immensely sorry to anyone that was hurt by the interpreted content of this video," Meleka said in a statement to The Student. "It was never my intention to cause a rift in the Miami community -- I care for this university deeply and have only ever wanted to bring positive change. I feel that my ability to be effective in this role has diminished, and for this reason I am officially handing in my resignation as Secretary for On-Campus Affairs."
At last Tuesday's meeting, Off-Campus Senator James Gale made the motion to enter executive session "for the purpose of discussing internal matters of the Associated Student Government." Although some senators had been made aware of the issue due to a message in their Slack group chat, most people were unaware the issue would be addressed at senate that night, two sources within ASG said.
According to ASG's standing rules, a motion to enter an executive session "must include an explanation of why executive session is necessary." However, before the motion to enter an executive session, ASG voted to suspend these standing rules.
In this instance, ASG improperly used Robert's Rules of Order, regulations outlining parliamentary procedure, to avoid state law.
This suspension is allowed, according to ASG's own rules, which state that the standing rules can be suspended with a two-thirds majority vote.
The senators voted to suspend the standing rules and then voted to enter an executive session that would allow the executive cabinet to stay in the room. The only person present that was excluded from this session was The Student's reporter.
After entering the executive session, Speaker of Senate Cole Hankins relinquished his role so he could debate and comment on the issue. Andres, the Speaker Pro Tempore, took his place in officiating the meeting, said a source within the meeting.
Parliamentarian Max Mellott explained the contents of the video to the senators, detailing the oversight committee meeting and the eventual resignation of both of the senators involved.
Gale said his reason for bringing up the issue was to make senate more transparent, said a source within the meeting. Gale claimed that rumors had been going around, but he wanted everyone to be aware of what was happening and to be open and honest with each other.
A heated debate ensued. Some senators argued that because the video was made two years ago, it was no longer relevant. These senators said the oversight committee had made their decision, and this should have been the end of the discussion, said someone present in the executive session.
Other senators agreed with those who wrote the petition, saying that Daly and Mallegg's actions had harmed members of ASG and the wider Miami community and, therefore, they should be punished - even if it was not clear whether the senators had said the racial slur.
"Student Senate is disappointed and understands the pain and anger the actions of our former members [caused] for so many in our Miami community," Hankins wrote in a statement to The Miami Student. "These actions are indefensible and violate the diverse, inclusive values that I know Student Senate to represent."
Some senators expressed their concern during the executive session that, if the video was leaked, it would reflect poorly on ASG.
"It's all of our asses on the line," multiple senators kept repeating, according to a source present in the executive session.
The senators continued to debate the issue until every senator on the speaker's list had a chance to give their opinion. When the executive session eventually ended, the senators immediately voted to table the rest of the agenda until the next meeting.
Murtaugh said the executive cabinet would release a statement on Monday; however, at press time, the statement had not been released.
Additional reporting by Samantha Brunn and Jack Evans.