Universities struggle to respond to student outrage

Last week, two public universities struggled with how to respond to student outrage. Eleven students were arrested at the University of California at Irvine for disrupting the speech of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.  Meanwhile, the University of Oregon has been exploring ways of expelling Pacifica Forum, a “hate group” (according to the Southern Law Poverty Center) that has upset many students on campus. In both situations, it is clear that the speech is only a symptom of the problem.

Responding to the incident at UC Irvine, the dean of the law school, Erwin Chemerinsky comments,

As a matter of 1st Amendment law, this is an easy case. It would be so no matter the identity or views of the speaker or of the demonstrators. Perhaps some good can come from this ugly incident if the university uses it as an occasion to help teach its students about the meaning of free speech and civil discourse.

A school-sponsored event does not offer the same protections for free speech that the school lawn does. However, a lesson in “civil discourse” will not address UC Irvine’s underlying problems. As we have said before: the criminal prosecution of students avoids the opportunity for meaningful dialogue.

Salam Al Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, D.C., notes the student protest at UC Irvine did not take place in a vacuum. According to Al Marayati, who has moderated several conversations between the UC Irvine Muslim students and the authorities, tensions had been building among the university’s Muslim students from the constant threat of FBI surveillance they face in Orange County and their campus community. An FBI official publicly stated that the federal agency intended to monitor Muslim students in the universities; an FBI assistant director then disavowed this agenda, however a subsequent peculiar incident casts doubt on that official statement.  According to an informant’s testimony, the FBI has also sought video footage from local gyms of certain young Muslim patrons.

As Al Marayati notes, surveillance of a particular community has a chilling impact on speech. Furthermore, Muslim student groups have complained that the university has rejected their requests to host speakers who would discuss the Palestinian issue. Granted the university does not have to invite every speaker to the school campus; however, the university cannot shirk its duties in explaining the perception of these seeming disparities.

There is already a sense among the university’s Muslim students that they are not equal players in Irvine. The university could take this as an opportunity to punish the protesters through criminal and academic sanctions, sending a heavy-handed message to all would-be protesters.  Or it could also recognize that “civil discourse” may not be available to students who feel pushed to the margins of their academic community, and it may be time to figure out whether the university is fulfilling its mission in creating the necessary spaces for that “civil discourse.” If such an invitation is extended, the students should come with open ears.  Civil disobedience is the speech of last resort; however, a lengthy arrest record will easily become one more obstacle to civil empowerment when they graduate.

Meanwhile, the University of Oregon has been struggling with the unwelcome presence of Pacifica Forum at its campus.  The discussion group was started by a former university professor, Orval Etter, and has invited a host of speakers on controversial topics. Responding to student support for the group’s expulsion, the university administration has moved the group’s meeting space from the student union to another building further on the outskirts of campus; the administration is also considering ending its building access privileges to retired faculty.

The Associated Students of the University of Oregon Senate has passed a resolution supporting the administration’s banishment of the Pacifica Forum from the student union, arguing that the discussion group has jeopardized campus safety; students have complained of encounters like harassing emails from Pacifica Forum members.

While campus safety is an important goal, there is something pretextual about the ASUO’s call.  In the backdrop of this “campus safety” argument is an incident earlier this month involving the spray-painting of a swastika in the offices of the school’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Queer Alliance.  Based on the fact that the Pacifica Forum had recently hosted a discussion on the meaning of the swastika, there is a perceived link between the group and the incident. Until such conduct can be tied to Pacifica Forum, the university stands on thin ice in taking any administrative measures to remove the group from campus, whether directly or by changing its policy to prohibit the use of space by former faculty members (which might be everybody’s loss).

It is heartening to see students speak out against those who would deny that the Holocaust took place in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and bigotry and hatred towards minority groups; however, make no mistake about it, expelling Pacifica Forum would be censorship.  It is clear that someone on campus has committed an act of criminal vandalism. That person or group, when identified, should be subject to disciplinary actions. The best course of action that the campus community can take is to fully investigate the troubling incident and find ways to support counterviews of tolerance and solidarity.  Indeed, the school has taken such positive steps.  This week, the school sponsored a standing-room visit by Rev. Jesse Jackson, who discussed “With Justice for all: Human Rights and Civil Rights at Home and Abroad.”

After all, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence” – Justice Brandeis (1927).

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2 Responses to Universities struggle to respond to student outrage

  1. These are two cases which foreground the importance of the distinction between speech and action. As NCAC always argues, a clear line should be drawn between these two – whereas peaceful protests are an integral part of how a democratic society functions, disrupting an event and hence disallowing the speech of those you disagree with is impermissible. As to Pacifica Forum, should the University retaliate because of the ideas of the speakers the Forum brings in, they would very likely be violating both academic freedom and the First Amendment. The vandals who spray-painted a swastika in the offices of the school’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Queer Alliance, on the other hand, should, when identified, be submitted to disciplinary action – their crime is only aggravated by the hateful content of the message.

  2. Raul says:

    Thanks for standing against censorship. However, you make a number of concessions to the opponents of free speech. Disrupting the Israeli ambassador is nothing to do with free speech. The man is a war criminal. The students who disrupted him are doing all they can to enforce the law. Secondly, the swastika in the LGBTQ center at Oregon – it looks like a fake hate crime. So do the noose and white hood at UC San Diego. And the swastikas at UC Davis. You congratulate the totalitarian left for speaking out “against those who would deny that the Holocaust took place in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and bigotry and hatred towards minority groups”. The group the university is trying to censor, Pacifica Forum, has never had a speaker who denies the Holocaust. It has never spread hatred towards minority groups nor anyone else. The campaign against it started because it looked at the Palestine question. Those who use lies and fake hate crimes against Pacifica think they are opposing ‘hate’ but really they are helping Zionism.

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