Do schools even care about free speech anymore?

The pro-life students probably had it coming. That was the message University of California, Santa Barbara vice chancellor Michael Young sent to students in a campus-wide e-mail last week.

A pro-life group of students, many of whom hailed from nearby Thomas Aquinas College, brought a graphic display to campus. They were showing it in UCSB’s designated “free speech zone” on campus on March 4. Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor in the Feminist Studies Department, hated the display. She led a group of students who surrounded the pro-life group and chanted “Tear down the sign! Tear down the sign!”

The pro-life group didn’t take the sign down. This infuriated Miller-Young. She told an officer for UCSB’s police department, “I just grabbed [the sign] from this girl’s hands.” The report continues, “Asked if there had been a struggle, Miller-Young stated, ‘I’m stronger so I was able to take the poster.’” She took it back to her office and destroyed it, with the help of students who she had egged on and who could conceivably face criminal charges by the time this is all sorted out.

Members of the pro-life group followed Miller-Young and her entourage, recording the theft. They said she had stolen their sign and demanded it back. “I may be a thief but you’re a terrorist,” she taunted. The pro-lifers tried to take their sign back. Shoving occurred. Miller-Young allegedly left “bloody scratches” on an arm of one girl.

From the police officer’s report, we can see that he (or she!) was taken aback by Miller-Young’s hatred of free expression. “I asked Miller-Young if she felt anything wrong had happened this afternoon. Miller-Young said that she did not know enough about the limits of free speech to answer my question,” the officer reported. At one point in the exchange, when she realized she might face actual legal charges, the professor tied herself in little thoughtcrime pretzels.

The officer “asked Miller-Young if she could have behaved differently in this instance” and reported a “long pause” before she answered, “I’ve said that I think I did the right thing. But I acknowledge that I probably should not have taken their poster.” Miller-Young continued by saying that “she wished that the anti-abortion group had taken down the images when they demanded them to.”

The officer of the law wasn’t buying the eleventh hour attempts at mollification. He (or she!) “explained to Miller that vandalism, battery and robbery had occurred” and sent it to the District Attorney’s office wrapped up in a nice bow for prosecution. Two weeks went by before the UCSB administration responded by issuing a letter that has got to rank as an instant classic of the New Comstockery.

Vice chancellor Michael Young’s letter began: “Over the past several weeks, our campus has been visited by a number of outside groups and individuals coming here to promote an ideology, to promulgate particular beliefs (at times extreme beliefs), or simply to create discord that furthers a certain personal agenda. Some passionately believe in their causes, while others peddle hate and intolerance with less-than-noble aims.”

This was, of course, nothing new, since “evangelical types” — hayseed, toothless, evolution-denying Bible thumpers all — “have been visiting UCSB and university campuses since time immemorial.” The current ruckus was simply the “most recent generation of true believers, self-proclaimed prophets, and provocateurs” doing their thing. Under such impossible circumstances, could you really blame the professor of Feminist Studies for getting a bit out of hand?

UCSB’s vice chancellor issued an extremely backhanded defense of free speech, largely for reasons of liability. He even admitted, “Our Founding Fathers — all white men of privilege, some even slave owners — got it right when designing the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Young then went on to explain the limits of that constitutional amendment as it applies to the UCSB main campus. “The Arbor Mall is a free speech area, as is the area in front of the University Center,” he wrote. People could avoid offense by avoiding those and only those areas. Any displays or protests elsewhere were absolutely verboten.

He closed by giving students and teachers suggestions for how they might drop a dime to “report them” — “them” being peddlers of “hate and intolerance with less than noble aims,” remember — in the event that “you are being subjected to offensive speech or material.”

Young encouraged students to call the UCSB police or, really, the Office of Student Life, rather than subject the school to more sign-stealing events that could lead to further litigation. “[The] Associate Dean of Student Life and Activities can be reached at [xxx-xxx-xxxx]. If you do not reach her, someone at the general OSL number [xxx-xxx-xxxx] will be able to relay your message,” he explained, helpfully.

Going forward, they ought to leave the harassment of groups with unwanted messages up to trained professionals.

Jeremy Lott About the author:
Jeremy Lott helped found and manage four publications for the Real Clear Politics family of websites. He is the author of three books and an e-book, as well as the recognized ghostwriter of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel’s memoirs. Follow him on Twitter @jeremylottdiary
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