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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Administration's Time, Place, and Manner

By Michael Meranze

The Official Statement of President Yudof, the Chancellors and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Academic Senate is a puzzle. The statement refers to “recent events at a few of our campuses” and “condemn[s] all acts of racism, intolerance, and incivility.” “Regardless of how such offences are rationalized, or what free speech rights they purport to express” the statement continues, “the acts we have witnessed are unacceptable.” In part, the President, Chancellors, and Senate Officials are referring to the hanging of a noose at UCSD’s Geisel library following a series of racist actions by students on campus. But given President Yudof’s far more forceful statement on the noose incident it is unclear what the joint statement really contributes. What is added by this collective expression?

I am not privy to the inner workings of the UC leadership of course. But in the movement from Yudof’s “Last night a noose was found hanging from a light fixture in the Geisel Library on the University of California, San Diego campus…Whatever the intent of the authors of this act, it was a despicable expression of racial hatred,” to “recent events at a few of our campuses” the administration introduced a critical vagueness into its official statements and thus threatens to set up a very dangerous and false equivalency between disparate events. One UC spokesman reportedly explained that the more general statement referred to events that “included the recent carving of a swastika on the dorm room door of a Jewish student at UC Davis.” But that “included” only clarifies so much.

Here is the question: in light of President Yudof’s earlier equation of students protesting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UCI with the “Compton Cookout” party at UCSD, is the studied vagueness of the Chancellors’ statement with its equation of “racism, intolerance, and incivility” setting up an equivalency between the act of challenging Ambassador Oren and the leaving of a noose or the carving of a swastika? I was not at the Irvine event so I watched a youtube video of the UCI protest. It was uncomfortable to be sure. But the students each seized a moment to challenge the Ambassador and then were led off by officers. Michael Oren was discomfited to be sure, but it appeared that as much time was used up by hectoring from the podium and the efforts of other audience members to shout down the protesters as was used up by the protesters themselves. And whatever one thinks of the tactic of protesting inside the auditorium, the protesters were involved in political speech. When the 11 finished their supporters left the auditorium; the Ambassador finished his speech. Ambassador Oren was representing his government; this was not a case of a disrupted classroom or lecture hall but a political speech by a state actor. Are we really to consider this event in the same category as carving swastikas or hanging nooses?

If the University Administration is not suggesting that these are equivalent actions it is easy enough to clarify the issue: they merely need to say so. And I hope people insist that they do so. This issue is not one of violence—no one has alleged there was violence involved. It is an issue of the University’s time, place, and manner restrictions. One can get a sense of the stakes through UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s Los Angeles Times opinion piece on the incident. Chemerinsky—a distinguished legal scholar—moves from the truism that under law there are no absolute rights to free speech to an argument that the case of the UCI students raises no difficult free speech issues. In making this claim he points to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ indication in Schenk v. United States that “[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” But let’s unpack this logic. Are we to assume that the student protesters were “shouting fire” or “causing a panic”? Holmes’ famous statement is about statements that have the element of “force” as he put it—not statements that make the audience or speaker uncomfortable. Chemerinsky could respond, of course, that he was only using Holmes to indicate that there are no absolute free speech privileges. But that simply dodges the question. For the question here is the reasonableness of the university’s restrictions and also the equation of incivility in political theater with “shouting fire in a theatre.” The language deployed by the Chancellors or in Dean Chemerinsky’s opinion piece implies that these restrictions and equations are beyond debate and are self-evident. They imply that incivility and causing a panic are the same. It is up to the University leadership to recognize that in their claims to protect open debate they may actually close it off.

To be sure, there are questions concerning the rights and responsibilities of civil disobedience. Again, I am not talking about violence here but about the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience. Traditionally, individuals engaging in civil disobedience have recognized the possibility of arrest and punishment. The point of the civil disobedience, after all, is to call into question the self-evidence of the rules in play. In turn, the duty of those in authority is to truly weigh, what if any damage the act of civil disobedience really caused. Chemerinsky suggests that nothing be done to the protesters at UCI that would be “so severe as to ruin these students' educational careers.” That seems to me to be a minimum—personally I have not seen anything to indicate that they should be punished further.

But, ultimately what is at stake here is not only speech but power. The UCI protesters were members of a minority who protested the actions and claims of a representative of a powerful nation-state. Whoever carved a swastika or hung a noose repeated acts that historically have demeaned and demoralized the vulnerable and less-powerful—and that are known to do so. At issue here is not some mistaken claim to absolute free speech; it is a question of how far speech should be limited. At issue here is not a question of civility or incivility; it is a question of whether the University truly thinks that temporarily challenging a political speaker (not preventing him from speaking) is equivalent to hanging a noose in a racially charged moment or carving a swastika in a student’s dorm room. Put another way: do UCOP, the Chancellors, and the System-wide Academic Senate truly think that the measure of acceptable speech is that it does not challenge or discomfort the powerful? And do they truly think they should punish protesters when it does?


cloudminder said...

adding to the confusing message from UCOP:
Mark Yudof writes: "As always, the remedy for bad speech is good speech. For that reason, we call on all members of the UC community -- students, faculty and staff -- to affirm and defend the values of the University of California. We are speaking out and ask that you do the same whenever, wherever and however you confront behavior that violates the principles and values of this university."

Yet, just a few short months ago,in October 2009, Mark Yudof and his UCOP crew etc and Arnold Schwarzenegger fight against and veto whistle blower protections for University of California workers?

The students see the headlines, the alumni see the headlines listed -see side column to your right- --and the stench of the hypocrisy and corruption at UCOP REEKS..

Mark Yudof forgets that he lobbied heavily for a VETO of "GOOD SPEECH"


"Good Speech" Arnold Vetoed and Mark Yudof Lobbied Against

Juan Dahlmann said...

Thank you for bringing attention to this. In a letter to the UC Davis community last week, Chancellor Katehi was even more explicit.

She states:

"Earlier this week, UC Davis campus police reported that one of our Jewish students found a swastika carved into the door of her residence hall room, an act of thoughtless vandalism that is being investigated as a hate crime. Last week, members of the University of California community were distressed to learn that members of UC San Diego's Greek fraternal community had allegedly organized an event called the "Compton Cookout." The invitations to this event encouraged participants to mock Black History Month by promoting negative and offensive racial and gender stereotypes. And a couple of weeks ago at UC Irvine, a small group of students attempted to disrupt and shout down the Israeli Ambassador to the United States as he made remarks at a speaking event.

This sort of behavior cannot and should not be tolerated, on our campus or anywhere else. It should be condemned by all members of our campus and university community. We cannot ignore deliberate acts that demean and threaten others based on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or any personal characteristics. When we see and hear such abhorrent language and behavior that is connected to current or historical acts of violence, hatred or abuse, our sense of community and shared respect is damaged. It's hard to feel welcome or safe in a community where such language and behavior is considered acceptable or tolerated."

Only the logic of public relations can explain the slippage between bias-driven hate speech and principled political speech. One might disagree with the motives or disapprove of the methods employed by the Irvine protestors, but to suggest that their actions "demean and threaten others based on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or any personal characteristics" is absurd. They were protesting policies implemented by a political and juridical entity, the State of Israel, at a speech given by an official representative of that entity. This was civil disobedience, not a crime, much less a crime of bias.

The UC administration's claim about the nature of the Irvine protest diminishes the seriousness of the racist and bias-driven acts at UCSD and UCD. Nooses, swastikas and bias-driven vandalism constitute a real, physical threat to students. Shouting down a diplomat threatens only the sensibilities of those who invited him or support the policies of the State he represents. For this, the Irvine protestors face possible expulsion. The student who hung a noose received a suspension. It is clear that the UC administration considers the imagined threat to the image and prestige of the institution to be greater than actual threats to students.

Bob Samuels said...

Michael, You have several great points, and I hope that the recent events regarding racism do not push the administration to block or demonize the protests on March 4th. Many of us plan to use free speech to tie issues of racial justice to the reduction of state funding and the privatization of the university. We hope that a variety of voices and perspective will be heard.

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