SG president’s anti-Muslim e-mail draws fire

Phelps forwarded message blasting Barack Obama, Muslims to colleagues

By Juliann Vachon

Student leaders are voicing concern about an e-mail Student Government President Nick Phelps forwarded to an SG listserv last month that describes presidential hopeful Barack Obama as a Muslim and derides the religion.

The e-mail states, “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level — through the President of the United States, one of their own!” The words Muslim, atheist, radical and Christian were highlighted throughout the e-mail.

Phelps admitted to sending the message — which had his name and his Student Body President and Board of Trustees member titles attached at the end — through the SG executive committee listserv. The listserv goes to at least seven members of SG. Phelps said his intention was to spark discussion about the presidential candidates.

“It’s not my opinion, and it’s not even fact,” Phelps said yesterday. “My SGA executive committee knows that.”

“The purpose was to talk about how ridiculous it was and how it’s not right.”

But student diversity leader Patrick Nally said regardless of Phelps’ intention, the e-mail was inappropriate and sparked a number of upset students to contact him.

“It’s not necessarily his opinion, but why aren’t student leaders thinking about what is wrong with this e-mail?” said Nally, a student who works in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Students gathered Monday at a closed meeting organized by an unnamed administrator to discuss the e-mail and how they would move forward, said College Democrats President Robert Kahne. Students agreed to keep the administrator and everything that happened at the meeting confidential. Kahne said that while he respects the decision to keep the meeting confidential, public dialogue would be more beneficial.

Kahne said he was extremely disappointed with Phelps and his actions. The incident is one of several events on campus recently that have exhibited intolerance of diversity, he said.

“I think the best thing for Nick to do would be to resign; I think this merits that type of reaction,” Kahne said. “This type of ignorance and slander merits his removal. It is an abuse of his office.”

Yahya Ahmed, president of UK’s Muslim Student Association, also said he was disheartened to see that Phelps, a student-elected leader, helped distribute the false message, which Ahmed said had a malicious tone and was full of disrespect for Obama, Muslims and atheists.

The myth that Obama has deep Muslim ties has spread through conservative talk shows and mass e-mails since he came to the political spotlight but has been discredited widely by journalists, academics and others.

“The e-mail was blatantly false,” Ahmed said. “It doesn’t promote discussion of any nature unless it is meant as a joke or for people who might actually buy into its message.”

College campuses are designed to promote open-mindedness, Ahmed said, but UK campus culture does not always foster a sense of acceptance.

Many UK students come from predominantly white backgrounds and were not exposed to many Muslims or even African Americans growing up, Ahmed said.

“Students have certain reservations and negative stereotypes, and a message like this only reinforces those negative notions they already have,” he said.

Pat Terrell, vice president for Student Affairs at UK, said in a statement yesterday that the e-mail was “deeply disappointing.”

“It perpetuated offensive stereotypes regarding race, religion and ethnicity that have no place in civil discourse or on a university campus where values of tolerance and mutual respect should be cherished,” Terrell said in the statement. “While not a violation of student code, and therefore not a disciplinary matter, this incident is one that we take seriously.”

Phelps said as soon as he discovered that the e-mail offended a student, he regretted his decision to forward it.

In Phelps’ weekly column in the Kernel yesterday, he apologized to anyone who felt offended by an e-mail sent to his executive staff, but did not specify the e-mail’s contents.

“I sent apology notes and in my column asked students to come meet with me,” Phelps said. “I’m sure they’d understand if they talked to me.”

Phelps’ invitation to come meet with him is not enough, said Nally, who was at the meeting Monday. Nally said Phelps should set up a forum and give those who might be too intimidated to walk into the SG president’s office alone a chance to share their opinions.

Students are planning other events to voice their concerns. Kahne said the College Democrats met yesterday to discuss the incident and will deliver an open letter to Phelps today.

At least two events were announced on Facebook yesterday, both of which call for a sit-in at tonight’s full Senate meeting at 8 in the Student Center. The events are titled “Stand Up to Hate and Bigotry” and “UK sit-in against Nick Phelps’ Anti-Muslim remarks.”

One SG executive committee member said the situation has been blown out of proportion. Tyler Fleck, director of constituency services and member of the executive committee, said SG members often use the listserv for forwards from the members’ parents and friends.

SG Vice President Brittany Langdon said the listserv is often used for political discussion, such as Kentucky’s November gubernatorial election and presidential primaries and caucuses this year.

“We’re in SG, we’re naturally very political people, and we have people who are on very opposite sides of the political spectrum,” Langdon said. “I’m a huge Barack Obama supporter, and I’ve seen that e-mail a million times, and I know that’s not how Nick feels.”

Langdon said members of the executive committee use the listserv to stay in constant contact with each other. Phelps used his personal e-mail account to send the message specifically to other SG members through the listserv, Langdon said, and many people have misconstrued the situation, thinking Phelps sent the message to the entire student body.

“People have concerns, and those concerns are very real,” she said. “Everyone makes mistakes, and he really does regret it.”

“He has said he’s sorry, and sometimes you get to a point where all you can do is admit your flaws.”

Staff writer Katie Saltz

contributed to this report