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Free Speech Advocates Unsatisfied with UC Santa Barbara Vice Chancellor’s Mixed Messages

On March 4, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Professor Mireille Miller-Young took a sign from an anti-abortion protester on campus, claiming she was “triggered” by the graphic images on display as a pregnant woman, and got into a physical altercation with the student in the process. Video of the incident is available on YouTube, and pictures posted online show injuries allegedly inflicted by Miller-Young. The county of Santa Barbara charged Miller-Young with vandalism, battery, and theft from a person, and UCSB Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Michael D. Young asserted a commitment to freedom of expression in an email to students on March 19. But despite the fact that UCSB is a public institution bound by the First Amendment, the institution has not signaled that it is taking action against Miller-Young for her censorship of constitutionally protected speech.

Today, Santa Barbara City College Professor Fred Hofmann criticized Young’s mixed statements about the incident in an excellent op-ed for the Santa Barbara Independent. Because Young’s tepid, apologetic explanations of First Amendment principles are dwarfed by paragraphs of condemnation of the pro-life protesters, Hofmann argues, a dangerous message comes across:

The vice chancellor’s letter rightly affirms that: “Freedom and rights are not situational ... we cannot pick and choose what views are allowed to be aired.” But that message is muddied if not contradicted by Vice Chancellor Young’s assertion that the campus is under siege by “outside groups” that seek to “create discord” and “peddle hate and intolerance.” In essence, he asserts that outside agitators are trying to stir up trouble. Sound familiar? This argument has been used countless times to discredit liberal groups exercising free speech. In fact it was used in the mid-1960s by UC officials and by Governor Reagan to delegitimize the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

The vice chancellor ... state[s] that outside groups desire to provoke confrontation and that if “we take the bait” and engage in “offensive behavior” then “they win.” The implication is that the professor took the bait but that the ultimate blame for her “offensive behavior” lies with the provocateurs themselves.

George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley shared a similar reaction to Young’s letter on his blog yesterday. Turley wrote that Young took the opportunity to launch “an attack on people advocating an opposing viewpoint,” when he should have expressed clear disapproval of Miller-Young’s actions as contrary to the purpose of the university:

Even without the criminality, she engaged in an act that should be anathema for any academic or academic institution: she was trying to silence others on campus. Miller-Young has acted in a way that is anathema to all intellectuals. Ironically, she has acted in the same way that critics of early feminists and birth control advocates responded to their protests. Feminist signs and protests were attacked and students censored for their views. Yet, the University has been relatively silent.

It’s a good first step that Young has reminded UCSB students that the First Amendment protects even those ideas that some might find offensive. But UCSB must take additional steps to ensure that speech on campus is protected from censorship, including punitive action against school employees who censor protected speech. Young should further encourage open debate by urging students to peacefully engage with those who have different viewpoints from their own. Instead, Young has advised students simply to ignore these protesters in the future, as they are limited to UCSB’s “free speech area.” Indeed, students may ignore protesters, but as Michelle Obama recently pointed out in China, we all benefit from hearing different points of view.

Both Hofmann’s article and Turley’s post are well worth reading in full. FIRE will keep an eye out for developments at UCSB.

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