Dear Chancellor Gilman,
A response to Chancellor Gilman’s email on October 1st regarding free speech on campus:
We applaud your decision to make a statement of support for free speech on of your first communications with the UCI community in your new capacity as chancellor. However, we are concerned that your criticism of incivility indicates a lack of tolerance for student protest and civil disobedience. This is especially troubling considering the history of the University of California (UC) students, including UC Irvine students, facing student discipline charges and even criminal charges for political speech on campus.
The proud tradition of student protest at the UC, protests that shed both light and heat, has been instrumental to the development of generations of activists. The free speech, anti-war, anti-apartheid, ethnic studies, opposition to Propositions 187 and 209 and Occupy movements are all examples of movements where hundreds of students on each UC campus began life-long commitments to social justice. But the UC’s parallel history of repressing student protest should not be ignored.
This repression has been exemplified in recent years by the pepper spraying of non-violent student protesters at UC Davis, the criminal prosecutions of non-violent student protesters at UC Irvine and the recent arrest of dozens of non-violent labor solidarity protesters at UC Santa Cruz.
As a result of this repression, students at UC campuses are less free to exercise their First Amendment right to protest than they should be. Last year, our student organization worked closely with 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 were less vocal than they would otherwise be because they feared 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 labor solidarity protest at UC Irvine, the day after dozens of students were arrested at UC Santa Cruz, we witnessed one student literally shaking with fear as he spoke into the microphone at the protest. 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 where several student activists were accused of violating the student code of conduct, UCIPD only began student discipline proceedings against the student they named as the leader. This 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 student they singled out as the leader.
Furthermore, as a result of student activists’ fear of punishment, student protest organizers believe protests are less well-attended than they would otherwise be. Therefore, student activists organize fewer protests than they would otherwise, 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 have seen 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 leader — undergraduates, graduates, and law students — continued to express a desire for a safer climate for campus speech.
We are concerned that your criticism of incivility, absent any support for the UC’s history of student protest and civil disobedience, indicates a step backwards from the Robinson-Edley Report’s statement that UC administrators should “recognize explicitly the historic role of civil disobedience.”
We would be happy to discuss this further in person.
The National Lawyers Guild, UC Irvine Student Chapter