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FIRE to UC San Diego: Reverse Unconstitutional Defunding of Student Media

This week, FIRE sent a letter to the Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and its student government president, urging the reversal of a recent student council vote to yank funding from all student print media outlets. The vote came the same day UCSD administrators condemned the humor publication "The Koala" in response to an article mocking the concept of “safe spaces” and using racial slurs. Apparently aware that they could not lawfully target The Koala by itself, student council members attempted an end-run around the First Amendment by simply taking away all of its funding to student media. Unfortunately for those favoring press censorship, punishing all media outlets to get at one is still unconstitutional.

On Nov. 18, two days after The Koala published an article entitled “UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” high-ranking university administrators including Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla released a statement denouncing the paper and the “offensive and hurtful language it chooses to publish.” The same day, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Juan Gonzalez attended a meeting of the UCSD Associated Students Council, where he read the statement for the record. Shortly thereafter, the Council—which distributes funds drawn from mandatory student activity fees to student organizations—voted in favor of a proposal to end funding to all student print media groups. A writer present from the independent UCSD student paper The Guardian wrote that council members “explained that since Council cannot selectively discriminate against one publication ("The Koala") without infringing upon First Amendment rights, Council should defund all publications currently receiving money from student fees.”

Associated Students President Dominick Suvonnasupa told The San Diego Union-Tribune that “the vote was not about The Koala, but was only about addressing the most efficient use of student funds.” However, the timing of the vote and the discussion of Council members prior to voting (see the live blog of the November 18 meeting, starting at minute 9:07) make clear that The Koala was the motivating factor and its unpopular content the target. Indeed, students reacting to the vote at the very next Council meeting, both for and against, clearly express the understanding that the defunding was caused by the controversy over The Koala’s content. As recorded on the meeting live blog, some of those comments include:

  • President of College Democrats: “How come all this came after Koala? Who decides what crosses the line? Everyone has the right to freedom of speech.”
  • Staff writer for the (defunded) Muir Quarterly: “I've had people come up to me saying that the Koala makes them uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't believe we should defund all media. The way to defeat hateful speech is with more speech. Censorship is not the way to go. When listening to voices of students, raise student voices. It feels like students are getting shut down, and that is the opposite of what should be done.”
  • Student: “Taking off our eyes off the Koala will be taking off our eyes off the bigger picture of society. It's more about the fact that the message of these words are institutional rooted across this country. Nobody is ‘silencing the Koala’. It simply can't be done. Everyone here loves the 1st Amendment. It's more of the fact that student fees are going into something so hateful. Whether you read it or not, everyone's talking about it. I'm disgusted that my money went to fund something like that makes me uncomfortable and unsafe. Racial tensions are very high in our country. It goes so much further than our university. It's about what does more good than harm.”
  • Executive board member of the UCSD Black Student Union: “If we are Tritons Together, why am I paying for something I am not supportive of? The Koala can do whatever they want but not here.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear in the public record, it’s that this controversy is all about judgements on the The Koala’s content and perceived value. Therefore, both FIRE and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLU of San Diego) wrote letters to UCSD’s student government, encouraging it to reverse what amounts to an unconstitutional attempt to censor offensive speech.

FIRE’s letter reminds the Associated Students Council that a student government empowered by a public university to distribute mandatory student fees must do so consistently with the First Amendment because it acts with the school’s authority. Just as UCSD, as a public institution bound by the Constitution, is not allowed to discriminate against a group of student organizations because it doesn’t like the viewpoint of one, neither can Associated Students do so in dispensing funds drawn from the whole student body. So, in answer to students asking why their fees should go to organizations with messages they do not support, it’s because government actors can’t withhold resources from you just because they don’t like what you say. It would be pretty scary for everyone if the law said otherwise.

FIRE also reminds UCSD and the Associated Students Council that the Supreme Court has held time and again that speech may not be punished because it is offensive, disrespectful, or even intentionally hurtful. As the Court reminded us in Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443, 460–61 (2011):

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

Unfortunately, this story is not a new one at UCSD. In 2010, after The Koala defended a controversial “Compton Cookout” party invitation sent by UCSD fraternities, Utsav Gupta, then-president of Associated Students, froze funding for all student media until the student government could develop new policies preventing student fees from going to groups “supporting hateful speech that targets members of [the UCSD] community.” After condemnation of the defunding by student media, FIRE, the ACLU of San Diego, and the Student Press Law Center, the Associated Students Council voted to end the freeze. We call on the Council to make the constitutional decision again and reverse its vote to defund media organizations. We call on UCSD to step in on behalf of its students’ First Amendment rights if the Council does not reverse its vote.

This latest incident comes at the end of a disappointing year for student press. As my colleagues have reported over the course of the year, student media across the country has faced funding cuts, punishment, demands for censorship, and even theft from fellow students and administrators critical of articles, op-eds, and cartoons. We hope that 2016 brings better news, including the news that UCSD’s Associated Students Council repeats history and restores student media funding. FIRE intends to keep pushing for that result into the new year and beyond if necessary.

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