Absent Actual Policy Changes, UCI Administration’s New Free Speech “Discussions” Continue to Chill Campus Activism

Sean Garcia-Leys
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

You might think that UCI’s recent public support for free speech would be heartening for campus activists.  Our new chancellor’s first email to students voiced his support for free speech. The university followed by launching its freespeech.uci.edu website, and Vice Chancellor Parham and Dean Chemerinsky recently spoke at a campus forum on free speech.  During the forum, they gave out little stickers with American flags and the web-link for the school’s free speech website.  But within all these proclamations of the university’s support for free speech, there have been warnings and threats regarding the limits of protected speech.

Most significantly, at the recent forum, Vice Chancellor Parham warned that student protest crossing the line into civil disobedience by violating time, place, and manner restrictions on speech will be handled by campus police.  He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King wrote his defense of civil disobedience from a jail cell and lamented that student activists today think they should be able to avoid such consequences.  Thus, the end result of UCI’s free speech campaign is that student activists are not more encouraged to speak out but are, in fact, more distrustful or the administration than they were before.

These threats against student protesters who dare violate time, place, and manner restrictions are especially troubling considering the history of UC Irvine students who have faced student discipline charges and even criminal charges for political speech on campus — charges that were shockingly disproportionate to students’ violations of speech restrictions.  At best, the university’s recent support for free speech avoids the core problem of free speech on campus: student activists are not interested in speech that can be easily ignored, but the university’s support for free speech ends as soon as their speech demands attention.  At worst, the university’s support for free speech is doublespeak for the message that they intend to harshly punish even mild acts of civil disobedience.

Last year, our National Lawyers Guild chapter worked closely with UCI student activists.  We observed student protests and met with student organizers and campus administrators to discuss the UC administration and police responses to these protests.   We found that many student activists are less vocal than they would be otherwise because they fear UC Irvine administrators and police would mark them as protest leaders.  These student activists believe that if they are marked as protest leaders, their risk of expulsion or criminal prosecution will significantly increase.  At a UCI protest, the day after dozens of students were arrested at related protest at UC Santa Cruz, we witnessed one UCI student literally shaking with fear as he spoke into the microphone. The student was afraid because he believed merely speaking out might cost him the opportunity to finish earning his degree.

These fears are not unfounded.  During the 2013-2014 academic year, UC Irvine student protest leaders were singled out for criminal prosecution and student discipline charges.  At one protest, several student activists were accused of violating the student code of conduct. But UCIPD only began student discipline proceedings against the student they named as the leader.  This happened despite the fact that the incident report filed by UCIPD only described violations of the student code of conduct by other student protesters and not by the “leader” targeted by their eventual disciplinary proceedings.  Furthermore, as a result of student activists’ fear of punishment, student protest organizers believe that protest attendance does not reach its potential. In turn, student activists organize fewer protests, further restricting opportunities for important social justice discourse on campus.

The University of California Office of the President is aware of this problem. In the wake of the UC Davis incident, UCOP undertook an effort to clarify and systematize best practices in response to student protest.  This effort began with the 2012 Robinson-Edley Report, a UCOP commissioned report on the UC’s response to student protest.   Following the report, UCI developed an individualized plan to implement reforms based on the report’s recommendations.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of students who continue to see their classmates and friends expelled, arrested, or criminally charged, the promise of these reforms has not yet materialized. When President Napolitano and the UC Irvine Chancellor Search Committee met with student leaders in the Spring of last year, multiple student leaders–undergraduates, graduates, and law students—continued to express a desire for a safer climate for campus speech.  The University’s current free speech campaign contributes little to this goal.

The Robinson-Edley Report advises administrators to “recognize explicitly the historic role of civil disobedience.”  Instead, we get Chancellor Gillman’s encouragement for speech that “sheds more light than heat,” as if effective social justice speech has ever done one without the other.  And, despite the University’s recent insistence that it supports free speech, students protesters are left with the same options they had before: polite speech that is easily ignored or transgressive speech that faces vague and disproportionate punishment by the university.