Two California Student Newspapers Address UCSD Free Speech Issues: One Right, One Wrong

By March 3, 2010

Two California college newspapers published editorials today regarding the Associated Students of University of California, San Diego (ASUCSD’s) blanket censorship of all 33 student media organizations at UCSD in the midst of an explosive controversy stemming from an off-campus "Compton Cookout" party held two weeks ago.

One of the editorials does a masterful job of summarizing the issuesand one does not.

First, the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Daily Nexus provides an excellent defense of the right to free speech:

This silencing of an entire community’s media outlets is grossly unconstitutional. As offensive as so-called "hate speech" can be, it falls firmly under the protection of the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech with very few exceptions, whether it’s agreeable or not. If [ASUCSD President Utsav] Gupta wanted to "handle this situation correctly and fairly" as he said in a media statement, then he shouldn’t have acted unconstitutionally. Several authorities, including the American Civil Liberties Union [of San Diego & Imperial Counties], the SPLC [Student Press Law Center] and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE] have stepped in to denounce and seek legal counsel to rectify this infringement. According to F.I.R.E., an organization committed to protecting the individual rights of college students, "this constitutional duty [not to restrict free speech] overrides every university or ASUCSD policy, including a supposed right to ‘shut down’ SRTV [Student Run Television]a forum created for student use."

The Nexus also makes what ought to be a self-evident point: an unencumbered student media is a vital resource to campus discourse. This is especially true now at UCSD, when racial tensions are running at fever pitch. The Nexus‘ editorial board eloquently states:

Legal issues aside, student media provides a vital forum for public discourse, something the UCSD student body needs now more than ever. Even if the language used by a humor paper’s president is considered appalling by many, the best forum to make the case for media standards is in the very campus news outlets that have been unilaterally paralyzed by ASUCSD’s funding freeze.

[...] 

In order to foster intelligent, university-level discussion of key issues, all speech must be protected, not just the speech of those who agree. The best thing about a free press is that all voices have a forum to express themselves. With student media silenced, ASUCSD is doing a disservice to all parties involved.

The Daily Nexus is taking a principled and admirable stand here, though I hesitate to give the paper too much credit. After all, the value of a free press should be obvious to the staff of any college newspaper, right?

Apparently notat least not when it comes to the editorial staff of The Orion (not to be confused with The Onion), of California State University, Chico. They seem to hold a "one-size-fits-most" view of the First Amendment.

To be sure, The Orion agrees with the Daily Nexus (and FIRE) when it argues that "[t]o cut off all funds to student-run publications for the jack-assery of one group of morons is completely irresponsible and adds another disservice to the pile of transgressions against the students." Both papers believe that Gupta has gone about handling this controversy in just about the worst possible way.

The Orion, however, says it has no problem with punishing The Koala, the controversial, satirical student publication whose editor-in-chief made racially charged comments about the Compton Cookout protesters on UCSD’s Student Run Television. The Orion asks, "why cut all publications and create a media blackout instead of just disbanding The Koala, the crass publication in question?"

Maybe because highly offensive speech is still protected under the First Amendment, and punishment of such speech by an administrative arm of a public university is unconstitutional? And because content and/or viewpoint discrimination in the funding of student groups is unconstitutional, and ASUCSD President Gupta wears as a badge of honor the fact that he is trying to engage in just that kind of discrimination against The Koala? That’s just a couple of reasons.

Speaking of the ASUCSD, The Orion gets the law wrong when talking about the rights of student media organizations accepting Associated Students (A.S.) funding:

We understand if the A.S. funds a paper, that paper can’t exercise complete freedom of reporting. A paper tied to an A.S. is a watchdog on a leash and the one holding the leash is the one who decides right and wrong.

Here’s what FIRE had to say about such a false claim in its letter to Gupta and UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox (quoted in part by the Daily Nexus):

As the agent of a state university, the ASUCSD has an obligation to distribute student funds to student organizations in a viewpoint-neutral manner and may not make funding or de-funding decisions on the basis of content or viewpoint. This constitutional duty overrides every university or ASUCSD policy, including a supposed right to "shut down" SRTVa forum created for student use with very few content restrictionsbecause of protected speech. See Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 835 (1995) ("[F]or the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses").

By its own logic, if The Orion accepted student fee funding (and I am not sure whether it does, though it is affiliated with Chico State’s Department of Journalism), then it would have no philosophical disagreement against Chico State’s student government walking in and taking away all its funding, or even shutting it down, because it had published an editorial or cartoon deemed to be unacceptably offensive. They would instead answer "Why, yes, indeed, Mr. All-powerful Student Government Executive, you are holding our leash, and we had no right to express that opinion after all. Please, take back our funding, since we’re obviously not competent enough to decide right and wrong." Somehow I don’t actually see The Orion rolling over without a fight in that situation (and, of course, FIRE would be their ally in that fight).

So, I guess a congratulations for respecting the Constitution is in order for the Daily Nexus after all. The Orion, meanwhile, can get a refresher on the facts and the law by visiting UCSD’s case page.

Schools: University of California, San Diego Cases: University of California at San Diego: First Amendment Violations at UCSD