On March 7, 2016 — a date that will forever remain in my memory — I made a post on a Facebook event page for a private party. What ensued over the next few weeks has forced me to question this university community’s true commitment to “tolerance.”
Members of the Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine took offense at my remarks, even though the post did not pose any sort of threat to those students, and was not intended to give offense, but rather as a private, inside joke. Within a day, they had organized a movement to call for my impeachment, descending en masse on the March 8 session of the ASUCI Legislative Council equipped with banners and posters bearing my name in big, bold, blood-red letters.
For over an hour, I was forced to sit silently and endure what I can only describe as character assassination, as one by one my detractors — none of whom I had ever even met prior to that trying afternoon — approached the podium to revile me as a “racist,” a “bigot,” an “Islamophobe,” and pretty much every other loathsome quality they could think to accuse me of.
One person even said they would like to “spit on my grave,” implicitly suggesting her approval of the prerequisite condition of my death, while another seriously questioned whether it is acceptable “to have such thoughts” as I expressed in my unfortunate joke, showing absolutely no sign of discomfort with the Orwellian connotations of that sentiment.
When my turn came, I apologized, expressing sympathy for the concerns of these students and taking it upon myself, as a student legislator, to be the adult in the room by acknowledging that my remarks in the Facebook post were inappropriate.
This was not enough for the protesters, who only demanded my resignation more loudly, as several of their number rose to petulantly reject my apology.
In the aftermath of that meeting, I was effectively shunned across campus, as numerous student groups and individuals released statements condemning me — including two clubs that I held dear to my heart, the Armenian Student Association and the College Republicans, both of which sought to distance themselves from me, with the CRs going even one step further and removing me from my position as president.
All this over a Facebook post.
I would like to state a third time, as I did in both my verbal and written apologies, that I am sorry for the content of my post. While I am shocked by the outcry and raw emotions that have resulted from this post, in the interest of all students, I want to extend my hand to all those who disparaged me and reiterate my desire to have an open and honest discussion with them about how to resolve this controversy fairly and move on to a brighter future. I invite the Muslim Student Union to sit and have a dialogue with me about the issues facing their community at UCI so that we may come to a mutual understanding and I can utilize my role as a legislator to further assist their situation.
All that having been said, I feel compelled to address the underlying assumption on the part of my critics that speech not only loses its protections, but indeed becomes punishable, once it crosses a vaguely-defined line into the realm of “hate speech.” As tasteless and deplorable as my joke was, nobody was actually harmed by it or because of it, despite the ridiculous protestations to the contrary made by some at the hearing.
I am particularly astonished that the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs chose to release a statement commending the exercise of free speech on the part of the individuals who assembled to call me a racist, bigoted Islamophobe. Is the Vice Chancellor insinuating that it is commendable for students to insult one another? If so, I applaud his strong commitment to free speech, and would only respectfully ask that he consider applying the same enlightened attitude toward speech that happens to take place online.
We have the luxury and privilege of living in the United States of America, a country where the civil liberties of individuals are guaranteed by no less than the highest law in the land, through the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The very first one — the one our founders considered most vital to the functioning of a free society — protects freedom of speech. Perhaps they knew what they were talking about.
Gevorg Novshadyan is a third-year business administration and political science double major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.