Whenever I sense myself spiraling into a fit of liberal rage – the kind that tempts me to roast someone that posts something I find offensive on Facebook – I take a deep breath and remember something my friend Ellen told me a long time ago.
We were probably 12 when she said it, and I have long forgotten the context, but at one point in my life someone set me off and Ellen reeled me back in. She said: “Claire, you can’t tell someone to shut up just because you don’t agree with what they say.”
Her words are increasingly important to remember in today’s political and academic climate, where a rash of campuses have shut down speakers for fear of being too controversial.
UCLA generally does a solid job of letting student organizations host events that promote free speech, as long as the events do not violate the university’s commitments “to a policy against legally impermissible, arbitrary, or unreasonable discriminatory practices.”
The university hasn’t even put the brakes on events that have sparked widespread dissent, like Milo Yiannopoulos’ “Feminism is Cancer” talk last spring. It’s commendable that UCLA supports the First Amendment when other campuses have shut down similar speakers. I decided to attend separate events with Bruin Republicans and Bruin Democrats to see how political organizations on campus would handle the sticky subject of free speech.
[Last week’s column: An Introduction]
I started by attending the Bruin Republicans event “Sabine Durden: An Illegal Immigrant Killed My Child” on Oct 13. Initially, I was upset that university police was present at the event. My liberal bias reared its feisty head and assumed that UCPD’s presence was a tactic meant to intimidate dissenters.
However, upon speaking with Haley Nieves, a third-year international development studies and political science student and the Bruin Republicans outreach coordinator, I learned that the group asked UCPD to be there after receiving online threats. My anger dissipated. While I – and the Constitution – defend the right to free speech, there is no legal standing for protection of threats. This is very cut and dry. If there is clear and present danger, police have every right to intervene.
While UCPD’s presence was certainly justified, it does not detract from the fact that it unintentionally created an hostile environment for both sides of the spectrum. For every person who went up the microphone to voice their opinion, I wonder how many sat in their seats scared and intimidated into silence. I know I certainly didn’t want to stand up and say anything when I knew UCPD was standing directly behind me.
So the evening chugged on, devolving into chaos as events covering controversial topics do. I snapped at one point, however, when an audience member shouted something to the effect of “Do your job!” at the police.
Let us be clear: A policeman’s job is to enforce laws in order to protect citizens. It is not the police’s job to remove people for exercising their freedom of speech. Yes, protestors were being disruptive and I’ll even go as far to say parts of it were unproductive (making fart noises, the choice method of one dissenter, does not do much to advance a conversation), but therein lies the grittiness of the First Amendment.
People are free to express themselves as they see fit, as long as that speech does not put anyone else in danger. In the 1949 Supreme Court decision Terminiello v. City of Chicago, Justice William O. Douglas said “freedom of speech, though not absolute, is protected against censorship or punishment unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest.”
It is my opinion that the protesters’ actions, while inconvenient, annoying and unrestful, did not produce a clear and present danger of serious substantive evil in that moment.
While threats – which are clearly not protected by the First Amendment – were made before the event, I did not hear or see any threats of physical violence at the event, so I find it highly inappropriate and even unconstitutional for an audience member to encourage a police officer to “do their job” in regards to addressing another audience member’s opposition.
Two weeks later, I attended a Bruin Democrats speaker event to see how they would handle free speech on our campus. Let’s face it: Bruin Democrats’ speaker – former CNN political analyst Bill Schneider – was not as controversial of a figure as Sabine Durden.
He certainly said things about Republican politicians that were as controversial as the things Durden said about undocumented immigrants, but the fact of the matter is student activist groups aren’t going to come out in droves to protest an event called “Bruin Democrats Hosts: Political Analyst Bill Schneider.”
It was more of a run-of-the-mill event than the Sabine Durden talk, but that could be attributed to a variety of things. The topic was less controversial, and we live on a hyper-liberal college campus. I noted that there was no UCPD presence, but there were also no online threats made against the event.
I would be interested to see how Bruin Democrats would handle protesters to an event that could be viewed as controversial from a conservative perspective – say, an event called “Ronald Reagan is the Antichrist,” or “Repeal the Second Amendment.”
Last year, I attended debates co-hosted by both Bruin Democrats and Bruin Republicans that supported and encouraged free speech, even if the debates themselves became ideologically heated. UCPD was not needed at these events to keep the peace. Clearly the two campus organizations can, in fact, civilly host and participate in events that foster free speech and the exchange of ideas.
Free speech works both ways at the end of the day. Students need to realize that whether or not one agrees with the opinion of an opponent, the Constitution guarantees that their opponent has just as much of a right to voice their opinion as they do. No matter what side of the political aisle you are on, your opponents have the same right as you to express their opinion. With that being said, however, it is important to remember that threats are not free speech. End of story.