The Privilege and Cost of Free Speech

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The Associated Students of the University of California, Irvine (ASUCI) has a crucial job of representing UCI’s diverse undergraduate population of almost 30,000 students. Our student government meets with high-ranking individuals and groups on campus, bringing the voice of all of our students to people who can help implement actual change. In this way, they bridge the gap between underrepresented students and administrators. This means that the voices within ASUCI have a large effect on the student population that goes beyond representing a single student’s viewpoint. ASUCI is in place to pursue the best interests of all students, and while free speech may not be restricted from those within, it may carry extremely heavy consequences that those who are part of ASUCI must recognize.

On Thursday, November 16, a legislation was proposed in an ASUCI Senate meeting by Melissa Safady, a Social Ecology Senator, and was seconded by Humanities Senator Brian Felix. This self-proclaimed “satirical” legislation ran on the premise of outing white supremacists in the local police department. Safady proposed that all black police officers should wear “white face” in order to not counter the narrative that all police officers are white racists and confuse UCI students who believe this notion. It also stated that all black students seeking a career in law enforcement “must live as though privileged with whiteness, wearing White-Face 24/7, and join the KKK with the rest of the entire white population who are members by default.” Any ideas that challenge these views, according to the legislation, are deemed racist, homophobic, and bigoted. It ends on the note that only white people can be racist, and if you don’t identify as white, somehow you can be prejudiced without equal repercussions.

This bitterly satirical legislation was never expected to pass, I believe, but it was intended to make a hugely controversial point to all of ASUCI. The white senator, Safady, who drafted this legislation believes all members of ASUCI are racist without repercussions. She mentions how the focuses of many ASUCI programs focus on the needs of students of color while painting white people as aggressors towards them. In this way, in her eyes, the student government is stereotyping all white people’s actions as inherently privileged and racist.
Obviously, there are many issues with her argument. As a student government, it is ASUCI’s job to serve all students and ensure their safety through legislation and programming focusing on their needs. Issues of poverty, police aggression and general harassment overwhelmingly affect students of color, and ASUCI simply uses this knowledge to advocate for their students’ best interests. However, it is clear that the necessary increasing attention to students of color’s issues has left some white students, such as Safady, angry and misunderstanding of ASUCI’s allocation of resources.

As a white person, I understand that it is uncomfortable to be confronted with your own privilege. I realize it is hard to understand that there are workshops, programs and conferences put on at UCI that we feel inherently excluded from because we are white. However, these are minor inconveniences in the bigger picture that we must overcome. The largest issue I have with Safady is that she is arguing that movements promoting equality are inherently racist. This notion that simply working for the needs of students of color on campus threatens white people is irrational to say the least, and undeniably dangerous.

There is a difference between supporting the often overlooked needs that students of color face and discriminating against white people. As it shows in this proposed legislation, many times this message gets lost in translation. And the effect this kind of speech has over the student body can be extremely detrimental. Instead of opening up the dialogue to discuss the issues of underrepresented students, this legislation brought the focus back to white people. White people also face struggles, just as Safady implies in her legislation, however, school systems have historically and overwhelmingly catered to our needs over the needs of other students of color. When Safady paints white people as victims of racism in her legislation, she is simply negating how much society has been on her side throughout history.

The response to Safady’s legislation has been intensely negative. The Black Student Union released a statement noting that the simple ability of Safady to release such a “satire” and call it legislation, instead of an act of racial violence, is white privilege. The ASUCI Executive Cabinet also issued a statement against Senator Safady and Felix’s actions. It declared that their actions made a mockery of the work that is done in the Senate.

In the end, these senators involved did not realize that, while they have the constitutional right to free speech to make these comments, they were unjustly using a platform that is supposed to advocate for the good of all students. In consequence, petitions have been made to force both Senators to resign, but as it stands right now, both are still officially listed as Senators on the ASUCI website. To me, it seems like a stunt meant to garner attention, no matter how ludicrously. But I don’t think Senators Safady and Felix realize how their voices insult those who truly have to deal with racism every day.

Claire Harvey is a third-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at cpharvey@uci.edu.

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