Bake-Off! UCI shuts down doughnut sale, free speech imperiled

October 17, 2003

By Gustavo Arellano at Orange County Weekly

The battle over free speech at UC Irvine hangs on a fritter.

On Sept. 25, along with 150 other student organizations, the UCI College Republicans set up a booth across from the campus’ main administration building as part of Welcome Week. Among other props–a life-size cardboard cutout of President George W. Bush and a “Join Arnold” sign-up sheet–were two boxes of doughnuts.

You could look at Bush and join Arnold for free. But the doughnuts? The GOP students offered them for sale, based on the buyer’s race and gender: white and Asian males were charged a buck, Hispanic hombres had to fork over 75 cents, while Native American females received the best price–a dime.

Designed to dramatize the unfairness of affirmativeaction programs, the gimmick was a fiscal failure–according to UCI College Republican president Bryan Zuetel, the club made only $12.But the booth was rockin’ throughout the warm Thursday afternoon. Passing students began haranguing the six College Republicans running the booth, apparently offended by the spoof. Soon, dean of students Sally Peterson swooped in like a health-department worker on a bad burger joint and ordered the doughnut sale stopped. According to Peterson, the sale violated the University of California student code of conduct prohibiting discrimination.

“If they were giving the donuts away for free and left the sign up with the discriminatory prices as a political point, I wouldn’t have had a problem,” Peterson says. “But because they were engaged in an act of selling and were making a profit, that made it different.”

The College Republicans grudgingly complied. “Looking back, it might have been a better idea to stand our ground,” Zuetel says. “But I didn’t want to be on the losing side and have a lawyer tell me later on that I did the wrong thing.”

Now lawyers are telling Zuetel and friends to fight. On Sept. 26, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that defends free speech on campuses, urged university officials to “affirm the full protection of the College Republicans’ right to social satire and to freedom of expression, and that no university policy or contrivance will be used to circumvent those rights.”

FAIR’s letter to UCI chancellor Ralph Cicerone argues the Great Bake-Off was not a commercial endeavor, as Peterson claims, but was instead political satire protected by the First Amendment and upheld in the Supreme Court by the landmark 1987 case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, which reaffirmed the right of satire no matter how offensive.

“[The bake sale] is definitely a case of satirical protest,” says Greg Lukianoff, a FIRE spokesperson. “It was supposed to ruffle feathers, and it’s been very successful. But shutting it down was wrong. If you subscribe to the idea that free expression can only be limited to things that don’t offend anyone, then you don’t believe in free expression at all.”

The mock bake sale has become a standard of conservative student activism. The first event took place at the University of New Mexico in February 2002. Other campus Republican clubs across the country soon staged similar pastry protests–at UCLA, Stanford, UC Berkeley, even UCI, which held a spring quarter bake sale earlier this year without incident. Vigorous debate greeted each event. The UCLA incident incensed California Democratic Party chairman Art Torres so much that he demanded an apology from the university’s Republican club. He didn’t get his apology, and the sale continued without administrative harassment.

It seems those days are over. Illinois State University administrators shut down an April 28 affirmative-action bake sale, and Southern Methodist University officials in Dallas clamped down on a Sept. 22 sale.

The UCI sale is apparently the first time students have fought back. “I cannot figure out why we were shut down, while more liberal schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley allowed them to continue,” wonders Zuetel, a 20-year-old political-science major. “My guess is that maybe the UCI administration thought they could squelch our free speech without a reaction from us.”

Zuetel admits that Peterson didn’t necessarily put an end to the bake sale and in fact encouraged the students to continue their protest. “But we weren’t there to sell doughnuts; we were trying to prove a point,” he says. “Taking down the sign effectively ended the parody, ended the satire, ended the bake sale.”

Peterson, whom some student wags now call the “Anteater Angel of Justice” for her anti-baked goods stand, disagrees.

“The fact that we didn’t shut them down means that their free speech rights were not abridged,” maintains Peterson. “It was just that they couldn’t sell. They could make their points in many other ways.”

The campus controversy surrounding the Great Bake-Off has brought a much-needed injection of politics to a famously apathetic campus. Zuetel says that the College Republicans have seen a spike in membership since the shutdown, while other organizations continue to attack the BakeOff via letters to the editor in the UCI student newspaper, New University. The paper’s editorial board defended Peterson’s actions in an Oct. 6 editorial, writing that “it was necessary that Peterson intervene in order to comply with the nondiscrimination policy statement of the University of California” despite openly acknowledging that to make a charge of discrimination against the College Republicans was “ludicrous.”

Lukianoff sees the controversy as both positive and negative. “The thing that’s incredible, that’s so predictable in First Amendment law is that in the act of trying to suppress a protest, people bring more attention to the protest,” he says. “If you want to fight something like that, sometimes it’s best to ignore it, or–even better–bring in more speech.

“The opportunity that [the bake sale] presented is potentially of tremendous educational value,” Lukianoff adds. “To deny students that opportunity is to interfere with the process of education, not to aid it. If the administration gave their students some credit, they’d more than likely hold up.”

Peterson and the College Republicans are scheduled to meet sometime next week to further discuss the matter. “We’re hoping the university will reaffirm that students are allowed to hold protests like that, that they will recommit to an atmosphere where robust debate and sharp satire is welcome as part of the university environment, not suppressed,” Lukianoff said.

And if the university refuses to back down? Lukianoff laughs and concludes, “We’re very uncompromising in our commitment to defending the First Amendment.”

Download file "Bake-Off! UCI shuts down doughnut sale, free speech imperiled"

Schools: University of California, Irvine Cases: University of California at Irvine: Suppression of Affirmative Action Bake Sale