Censorship: free speech ends at DeNeve

By on September 30, 2006

If there is one ideal to which academics regularly pay lip service, it is a liberal environment where all points of view can be discussed. Faculties and administrations across the country have long taken pride in efforts to create just such an atmosphere, which would honor free expression, even if the larger society didn’t.

Yet as administrators cave to demands by leftist faculty and students to protect minority groups from intimidation and harassment, they have written up speech codes and placed it firmly in he official guiding documents of their respective universities. In turn, they have used these codes to censor speech they judge to be offensive. UCLA’s own Office of Residential Life (ORL) is complicit in the subversion of America’s number one virtue. ORL is a department of the office of UCLA’s Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs; its role is to administer on-campus housing. To this end, it hires and oversees Residence Assistants (RAs) and creates the policies for all aspects of life on campus. Like any administrative department of a public school, ORL’s actions are clearly bound by the First Amendment. Just as clearly, ORL hasn’t noticed. 

Last winter, students and roommates Aaron Miller and Steve Mirsky put up a sign that jokingly says “My roommate is a fag, but he gives good head” in the window of their DeNeve dorm room. But just as the signs went up, gay rights activists living nearby (who were not students) complained to the ORL office. An RA came by their dorm room and ordered them to take it down. Facing punishment, the pair decided to comply with the request.

Unsettled by their censure, they set a second sign that read: “My roommate is a Jew, but he does my taxes.” “Both of us being Jewish, we figured they couldn’t say anything,” Aaron said. But sure enough, RAs made them take down the second sign as well. The RAs, uncomfortable in making this request, deferred the blame to ORL, citing instructions from above.

Aaron and Steve, unhappy but cooperative, obeyed once again. But soon after, they received a formal letter from Dayna Baker, their Resident Director–the ORL administrator in charge of their building–requiring them to attend a meeting with her. The letter explicated that attendance was absolutely mandatory; it spelled out strict penalties, such as holds on their enrolment records (which bars students from most activities and privileges), unless and until they scheduled and attended the meeting.

In protest of these overbearing policies, the infuriated roommates posted a third sign, which read: “Who says ORL isn’t ANAL?” A Resident Director from a different building now approached Aaron and Steve, demanding they remove this sign, like they had the others. An appeal to the right of free expression fell on deaf ears. 

At their scheduled meeting, Dayna Baker pointed to a rule in the university’s student conduct code to justify the censure of the signs. The roommates were commanded to apologize via e-mail to the woman who had complained about their original sign. They apologized. Even so, Baker forbade the two from putting up any more signs. 

Even if we accept the speech code, said Aaron, its use in the context was quite a stretch. ORL has used a policy against student harassment to quash criticism of the administration. Though the two felt their rights had been violated, they feared they could be kicked out of the dorms if they protested.

Regarding the second sign, the roommates said they were both Jewish themselves, and that there was little chance of anyone being offended. Yet the administrator remarked that she was personally offended by it, and used this as a rationale for limiting the students’ speech!

In this case, the complaint of a non-student and an administrator’s taking offense were used to punish two students engaging in free expression. Signs, ordinarily permitted on windows, were banned with dubious citations of anti-harassment conduct codes.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. It betrays a larger trend away from free speech and toward censorship on college campuses. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan organization that advocates First Amendment Rights, federal courts have repeatedly interpreted Supreme Court precedents to strike down speech codes. These codes have been overturned in nearly every case heard, some (such as the University of Michigan’s) with language almost identical to the policy in place at UCLA.

Such speech codes, ruled the federal courts, are far too broad; their vague wording is conducive to curtailments of constitutionally protected free speech, along with protections from legitimate harassment. Time and time again, the courts upheld the precedent that “mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings” does not constitute harassment.

Harassment, as defined by the Supreme Court, must be directed toward specific individuals. Furthermore, this harassment must be “objectively offensive.” It must offend a reasonable man or woman and it must objectively prevent one from partaking in regular activities, such as receiving an education.

In contrast, the UCLA conduct code used by ORL to censor the students reads, “The University also recognizes that words can be used in such a way that they no longer express an idea, but rather injure and intimidate, thus undermining the ability of individuals to participate in the University community.”

In regards to UCLA’s speech codes, Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, issued the following statement: “UCLA is a public university, bound by the First Amendment, and there is no exception to the First Amendment for ‘words that injure.’ Such a policy is unconstitutionally overbroad.”

Multiple e-mails and phone calls to Dayna Baker, as well as the Director of ORL and the office of the Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs (which oversees ORL), were not returned. After being sent from one office to the other, the University finally gave me an answer, which was that they wouldn’t be commenting.

Speech codes like the one at UCLA are present in some form in many colleges–private and public–across the country. They are all predicated on, or justified by, the notion that those offended by the speech are “harassed” to the point of being unable to fully participate in their communities. Administrators regularly defend speech codes by expressing a need for a compromise between an individual’s right to self-expression and the “right” to live in a community free of adversity.

To be sure, administrators are justified in carrying out their duties to prevent and punish physical violence and threats of violence. In each case of restriction, the burden of proof must be on the censors to prove why a restriction on speech is fundamentally necessary.

Given the context surrounding the humorous poster of Aaron and Steve, it is clear that the sign was by no means creating an atmosphere where individuals would fear for their safety. The Office of Residential Life could not have concluded that it did. It decided to quash free speech even so. 

ORL should not strive to fabricate an environment where no one can be offended. If this goal were accomplished, it would ultimately be to the detriment of students, as no such “safe zone” (as ORL terms it) exists in the real world. Instead, it is healthy for people’s ideas–and yes, identities–to be challenged in a non-violent matter. Greatness is often shaped through intellectual opposition.

Those sympathetic to this censorship argue that students voluntarily waive their right to free speech when they fill out a housing contract and “choose to live on campus,” to paraphrase ORL. But under the same rationale, any public school could simply require all enrolling students to sign such a waiver, invalidating the First Amendment entirely.

This is hardly a legal justification for UCLA’s decision to ban speech on the basis of the politics or the undertones of the speech, which the First Amendment expressly forbids. While ORL is the bully in this case, it relies on a code of conduct that is anti-American—a document that etches into policy what the “anti-free speech conservatives” of the 60s didn’t dare do themselves. Ultimately, any meaningful change must start with a revision of that document.

Free speech rights are far more than mere legal technicalities. They provide the foundations of a free society; the curtailing of free speech is almost always the earliest indicator of emerging dictatorship. Free expression is at the heart of America’s tradition of freedom. 

 It is tragic that these freedoms are being eroded at the institutions that have long triumphed these freedoms—by administrators who fought for them in their own college days. For the sake of their own initial ideals, which alas did not survive the power that came into their hands, students must demand that UCLA’s unconstitutional censorship be broken and that freedom of speech be championed once again.

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Schools: University of California, Los Angeles