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The Mass Media

A Little Thing Like Civil Rights

A journalist is, by nature, a reformer hoping to improve the future by exposing fraud. Some would call us by a different name–troublemakers.

When I began attending UMass the university published my Social Security number on my student identification card, and the number was then requested on numerous forms that I was required to complete, from the sign-in sheet in the language lab to exam answer sheets.

I knew that wasn’t right–I’d read numerous articles advising people to not reveal their Social Security numbers. So I changed my student ID number to a “dummy number.” But, when I did, the employees at the Registrar’s office said I might have problems receiving financial aid.

But I thought the only way to start to change the status quo was to forge ahead.

When I went to pick up my financial aid check, the girl behind the window located the check and was in the process of handing it to me when she glanced down and noticed my name on a short list–she yanked her hand, and my check, back out of my reach.

That began my long journey through an unpleasant experience.

I asked why I couldn’t have my check, and was told I needed to change my Student ID number back to my Social Security number.

I said that I had supplied my Social Security number to the Financial Aid Office.

Then I looked up and published the law, the Privacy Act of 1974, which states that I didn’t have to publish my Social Security number. “No state or local government agency shall withhold a benefit from an individual for failure to reveal their Social Security number.”

Individuals hoping to be helpful said I should seek assistance from the Dean of Students.

The Dean of Students, at that time, said, “the easiest thing would be to change your number back, Michael.”

But to me that wasn’t the easiest thing.

To me, that was like saying the easiest thing would have been for Rosa Parks to get up and move to the back of the bus.

To me, forfeiting my civil rights in violation of Federal law would have gnawed at my soul.

To me, seeing the civil rights of thousands of students being smugly trampled on wasn’t an easy thing.

But the university lawyers were saying the law didn’t apply. And the Dean of Students was advising me to play along, because that would be easiest.

Meanwhile, I was broke, and I fell behind on my mortgage, my credit was ruined, and my daughter left with her mother when we got separated, partly because my ex realized I was ruining both of our lives–over principles, over a little thing like civil rights.

After a couple of months of trying to reason with the administration, I finally contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) At first they didn’t believe me–how could what I said was happening be actually happening? They couldn’t believe that a state university would blatantly violate my civil rights.

But it was happening, and they took the case.

A couple of weeks after the lawyers from the ACLU contacted the university I received a letter thanking me for my “patience” while the university resolved a method to use my SS# and a dummy number simultaneously, and then I received my Federal financial aid check.

But this is ongoing. Civil Rights, and other laws, are being broken all the time here at UMB.

And there remain certain individuals in the administration who have no ethics, no integrity, who wantonly violate laws and wantonly advise students to play along.

Now, if you don’t mind being treated like a second class citizen, and if you don’t mind “playing ball,” then you won’t have any major problems attending UMB, or dealing with the Office of Student Affairs.

As for “troublemakers” such as myself, troublemakers who happen to know that laws are meant to protect our rights and know that the rules are supposed to be followed by those who enforce them–especially by those who are supposed to enforce them–we will continue to be, metaphorically, dragged from our homes and beaten. (That’s why I have the ACLU on my speed dial list.)

We will continue to suffer. ‘Cause we’re “troublemakers.”

Michael Rhys can be reached at: [email protected]