February 23, 2006

Protect—don’t persecute—campus speech

This past Tuesday University administrators called in the UCPD to arrest four students who were eventually charged with disorderly conduct. Two students had initially been staging a mock recruitment rally for “The American Nazi Youth Corps” as part of what they asserted was a protest of the presence of Marine Recruiters in the Reynolds Club.

The students carried a sign that incorporated swastikas and encouraged passersby to rip the heads off plastic dolls in the mock slaughter of infants. At best, some would say the students used a vehicle of protest that was obnoxious and annoying; at worst, they engaged in the promotion of fascism and anti-Semitism. Many, regardless of their political orientation, would certainly find this protest offensive. However, we are proud to speak on behalf of these students not for their ideas but for their freedom to express them.

Repulsive as the students’ display might have been, it seems as if the administrators involved acted contrary to stated policy in ordering the arrest of these students for expressing their political views. The principle of free expression is firmly rooted in the fabric of the University. The University Student Manual states that “the ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive.” The only exemption to this rule is in the event of the direct harassment or threat of violence to individuals. In our understanding of these rules, there is nothing to justify the attempts to silence and arrest these protesters made on the part of administrators.

Unless these arrests are repudiated, the administration has set a dangerous precedent for the abridgment of free expression within our community. The administrators involved seem to have arbitrarily and capriciously exercised their power to call the police in breach of University policy. There are no stated bounds on this power, and its use quickly establishes a slippery slope for further coercive action. For example, two other students who joined the protest when the confrontation began were also arrested after chanting slogans such as “administrators hands off, recruiters off campus,” which incorporated none of the offensive speech that gave rise to the initial complaint.

There are many forms of political expression that might be deemed “disorderly conduct,” but would the administration feel that all of these forms of expression are also subject to arrest at the whim of an administrator? The University’s leadership should provide a clear justification, if one exists, for the actions taken in the name of the University on Tuesday.

Unlike recent incidents in housing, this offensive speech took place as part of a clearly political protest, which makes its restriction of far greater importance. The Reynolds Club is an important social and political hub for the University, and restricting freedom of expression there, of all places, bodes badly for the campus community as a whole. If it is true that the University seeks to foster an environment dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, the fact that members of the administration may sometimes take action to arbitrarily restrict parts of that exchange seems counter to the rules and interests of the University community as a whole.

Some might object that, in this instance, the staging of a faux Nazi Rally was so heinously offensive that it had no place in the University community. We cannot make people tolerate all ideas, nor do we advocate that they should. We do not think that the mode of protest chosen by these students is laudable or even intelligent. However, freedom of expression does not have an exception for poor taste, offense, or even racism. It is vital for a university setting to have a framework in which all ideas, especially political ones, can at least be exchanged freely. If we allow political expression to be restrained because it is presented in an offensive way, we run the risk of stifling the free flow of ideas so vital to both the process of learning and to politics. Censorship, in print or in politics, has never created an egalitarian society.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.” Beyond this specific incident, the fundamental principle at stake is not one of unruliness, offense, or authority, but a principle vital to both our society and our University: that individuals are free to express their views even if they stand contrary to prevailing opinion. It is precisely when passions are high and power so readily at hand that this principle should receive the highest deference.