By Emily Foxhall and Teresa Watanabe at Los Angeles Times
UC Irvine students Prasoon Saurabh and Jinfeng Li both hang U.S. flags in their apartments. Saurabh, a 26-year-old graduate student in chemistry, also hangs flags from Ecuador, Argentina, Germany, France, Brazil, China and other countries to celebrate the diverse homelands of his many friends.
So Saurabh is bemused by the national furor sparked by news that six members of a student government council voted last week to ban flags of any country in their office lobby.
Although the action was quickly vetoed by the student body’s executive cabinet and denounced by campus administrators, the backlash intensified Tuesday—including a threat of violence that prompted university officials to cancel a planned student government meeting scheduled that evening.
“To say that UCI is anti-U.S.? That’s just too much,” said Saurabh, a Nepal native.
The campus has been on the defensive since last week’s vote by a small student government council to ban the flags. Although there appears to be little support for the action on campus, the backlash has been swift.
The campus was bombarded with emails and phone calls. Opponents of Matthew Guevara, the student who proposed the ban, launched a petition drive to oust him from office. Guevara told the school newspaper that he had received death threats, insults and calls to “go back across the border.” Another student who supported the ban was threatened with a “lynch mob” and racial slurs.
On Monday, state Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Santa Ana) announced she would push for a state constitutional amendment to prohibit state-funded universities and colleges from banning the U.S. flag on campus.
Critics said the reaction was overblown.
“Political people are jumping on this and trying to turn it into a litmus test for student patriotism, which is a stretch,” said David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science. “I’m dubious that attacking the flag is something that’s going to take off across campuses.”
Some students also criticized the racism and violent threats directed toward the supporters of the ban.
The measure proposed by Guevara, who could not be reached for comment, was approved on a 6-4 vote with two abstentions and stated that flags should be banned to create a “culturally inclusive space.”
The U.S. flag — while symbolizing freedom, equality and democracy — is also associated with colonialism and imperialism, the measure said.
Two of the measure’s supporters, Khaalidah Sidney and Naty Rico, told the campus newspaper that the U.S. flag reminded their friends who are in the country illegally of their constant battle to obtain citizenship. Rico was one of three students who later apologized for their vote and said they would not challenge the veto of it.
In their Facebook post, Rico and her two council colleagues wrote that the issue came up in January after a student put up the U.S. flag in the student government lobby. Another took it down. Then a monthlong conflict ensued, until students asked the legislative council to intervene.
In a public letter this week, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman called the actions of the six supporters of the measure “outrageous and indefensible” and said they did not represent the 30,000-member student body.
The flag flap was the latest incident at UC Irvine involving free speech conflicts. In 2010, 11 Muslim students were disciplined for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, and the showing of controversial Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad drew more than 350 protesters in 2006.
Peter Bonilla of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said his Philadelphia organization has seen an uptick in student attempts to restrain free speech and assert a “right not to be offended.” Student groups have increasingly launched campaigns to “disinvite” campus speakers, such as columnist George Will and talk show host Bill Maher, he said.
But most students are stressed out by their academic workloads and demands to shoulder more of their own tuition, with little time for student activism, Meyer said. The biggest student protests in recent years, he added, have targeted tuition hikes and budget cuts.
On Tuesday, much of the campus activism over the flag issue came from outsiders.
Along one walkway, students gave out “free hugs” for luck in final exams, played music or offered information about their campus clubs. In another spot, students rallied with picket signs for a teacher who had been denied tenure.
Joseph Borda, a 93-year-old military veteran, drove in from Pomona with displays of his medals to tell anyone who would listen that the U.S. flag should always stay up. Later, he was joined by other activists from Claremont, Ontario and Pomona who hooked up online. Some wore “God bless America” T-shirts; others carried flags and signs (“Our flag is the reason for your freedom”).
“Nobody can complain about this country,” Borda said. “This country made a man out of me.”
Tressy Capps of Fontana said her father, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, would “roll over in his grave if he knew what was going on.”
A new Pew Research Center survey found that the millennial generation — those ages 18 to 33 — are less patriotic and more unattached to organized politics and religion. But that doesn’t translate into widespread student support for bans on the flag, Meyer said.
As for students, several said they had not followed the flag controversy closely enough to comment on it.
But those who had expressed some understanding toward the students who voted for the ban, and criticized administrators for not better protecting them.
Tom Vo, 19, a sophomore, said the proposal was aimed at just one student meeting place and that flags flew freely in other parts of campus.
“The choice to take the flag out of that office is not hurting anyone,” he said. “It’s just being overblown.”
Saurabh ventured they may have been young, naive students trying to make a difference. “You’re an undergrad, you’re young, your blood is fiery,” he said.
Schools: University of California, Irvine