While April 20 already has a built-in reason for some people to gather and celebrate, a group of University of California Santa Cruz students reportedly got together for a very different reason on 4/20 this year: to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. According to a university investigation announcement, the students “sang happy birthday and ate cakes adorned with hateful and horrific symbols.”
While there is not much publicly available information about this situation, students’ celebration of Hitler’s birthday — whether in jest, or in seriousness — is protected expression. That’s why FIRE wrote UCSC today urging it to drop its investigation.
We reminded UCSC that as a public institution bound by the First Amendment, it cannot investigate or punish students for engaging in protected expression. Investigations can themselves chill speech even if the speaker is never formally punished. In this case, UCSC’s investigation and statement that the event was “referred to student conduct for follow up and adjudication” will surely chill speech and cognizably harm First Amendment rights. Thus, without more, hosting a birthday party meant to convey a specific message — even support of Hitler — cannot justify an investigation at a public institution.
It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.
And if your gut reaction is we ought make an exception for this particular kind of celebration, consider this:
The right of these students to gather and eat Hitler-themed cake is the exact same right that allows individuals on campus to host drag shows and abortion-themed art exhibits and, yes, to protest anti-Semitism. As the Illinois Supreme Court said in Skokie v. National Socialist Party, when Nazis sought to march in a town with a large population of Holocaust survivors:
It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers. . . . The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.
Students and administrators can, and should, express their opinions about issues they care about. This includes public statements condemning and criticizing the event. However, as a public institution, UCSC is limited in how it may respond to protected expression.
FIRE has asked UCSC for more information, but if the facts are as alleged, UCSC must immediately drop its investigation and reaffirm its commitment to protect free expression — regardless of the views expressed.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).