LOS ANGELES, Mar. 21, 2011—In a victory for the First Amendment, officials at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) announced late on Friday, March 18, that UCLA had dropped its disciplinary investigation of student Alexandra Wallace’s “Asians in the Library” YouTube video. Following UCLA’s announcement, however, Wallace released a statement apologizing and indicating that she was leaving UCLA for “personal safety reasons,” including threats against her and her family.
“We are pleased that UCLA will not attempt to punish Alexandra Wallace for her constitutionally protected speech. The cure for ‘bad’ speech is ‘better’ speech, and the outpouring of parody and criticism of Wallace’s video demonstrates once again that our nation’s First Amendment tradition of vigorous discourse is the best way to handle speech controversies,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “However, the fact that Wallace cites fear for her safety among her reasons for leaving UCLA is deeply troubling. Serious threats of physical harm are not protected by the First Amendment, and FIRE urges UCLA and local law enforcement to continue to investigate any credible threats of violence against Alexandra Wallace in the wake of her video.”
In the video, which has been viewed on YouTube more than five million times, Wallace mocks Asian students who speak in Asian languages on their cell phones in the library, including those students inquiring about the safety of loved ones following the recent disasters in Japan. Wallace also complains about Asian students whose families do chores for them. After UCLA officials announced an investigation of the video for possible charges including harassment, FIRE sent UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block a letter on Tuesday, March 15, urging him to end any investigation of Wallace’s speech because the content of the video is protected by the First Amendment.
FIRE’s letter reminded Chancellor Block that as a public institution, UCLA is bound by the First Amendment and cannot lawfully punish students for engaging in protected speech. FIRE noted that Wallace’s speech failed to meet the legal definition of peer-on-peer hostile environment harassment announced by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), defining actionable harassment as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
Following FIRE’s letter, UCLA School of Law Professor Eugene Volokh discussed the controversy and FIRE’s view on his popular legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, agreeing with FIRE that Wallace’s speech was protected by the First Amendment and therefore could not serve as grounds for punishment. On Friday, March 18, The New York Times editorial board also urged UCLA not to punish Wallace, quoting Professor Volokh and noting the importance of First Amendment rights on campus.
Meanwhile, many responses to Wallace’s video were posted on YouTube by UCLA students and others, voicing a wide range of commentary prompted by Wallace’s views.
While many students and others responded to Wallace’s protected speech with speech of their own, UCLA student newspaper the Daily Bruin reported on Monday, March 14, that police were investigating threats against Wallace and were “working to ensure her safety.” True threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. In the 2003 case Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court ruled that “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals” do not enjoy First Amendment protection.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.