Outside the Free Speech Cage

(from Work Without Dread):

Marx remarks that the “principle of public safety” can be a legitimate moral force, even though “measures of public safety” are usually “dictatorial measures.” But as he writes this, he is making the point that the Prussian ministry “never hesitated to apply measures of public safety . . . against the democrats,” even as it has “taken good care not to intervene against the counter-revolution on grounds of public safety” (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 14 September 1848, in The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings Vol. 1 [New York: Verso, 2010], 162). All moral legitimacy is lost in this asymmetry, which winds up subordinating the supposedly hallowed principle of public safety to political conformity and revealing the narrowness of the ministry’s idea of the public.

In the University of California the discourse of “safety” was densest amid the racist incidents of 2009-10, such as the discovery of a noose on the UCSD campus. During and after that time, President Mark C. Yudof and several UC Chancellors declared their desire that students be able to feel safe. “Campus climate is about a sense of belonging,” said Yudof. “It is about a sense that you are welcome, that you are supported and that you are safe. That is your right as students, to a safe, respectful and welcoming campus climate” (newsroom.ucr.edu/news_item.html?action=page&id=2326). In various statements and speeches, the representatives of UC administration paired “safe’” with “civil” and even with “comfortable”: “safe, inclusive, and civil”; (chancellor.ucsb.edu/memos/details.cfm?V=B60719BD750CAB2B”; “”I understand that students don’t feel safe, they don’t feel comfortable” (www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/22934). The problem is not only the administration’s slide from literal safety to nebulous civility, which equates hate speech with political speech on the ground that both might make someone uncomfortable. The problem is that, as the protests have continued, the administration has failed to show the kind of concern for public safety and public civility that would require it to include protesters within their caring. In order for such a concern to exist, high-ranking UC administrators would need to acknowledge that it is possible for student protesters to be the victims of violence and incivility by others. But this they cannot do, because it would show the speech and acts of protesters to be responses to a political situation rather than simple aggressions; it would show that the administrators themselves are invested actors who have already taken sides in a political situation.

The impression the administration promulgates, instead, is the same–coincidentally, uncannily the same–as the one that the Orange County District Attorney relied on in its press release yesterday explaining why it is filing criminal charges against 19 students and workers who held a sit-in at UC Irvine on February 24, 2010 or protested outside. The D.A. points out that the campus offers “designated areas to practice free speech in a safe and effective manner without disrupting the normal operations of the University.” (Why the campus code is at all relevant to the decision to prosecute under California law is a mystery.) The D.A., citing UCI, divides “safe” from unsafe free speech by the ability of the former to comport with “normal operations,” which are thus implicitly defined as not already including free speech. “Normal operations” does not mean that freedom of speech normally describes or suffuses the activities of the university. They are that which free speech has to navigate around, and it is this process of navigation, a “manner,” that accrues the responsibility for maintaining safety. The contradictions of campus speech codes and applications of the First Amendment generally have been subject to many scholarly analyses since the introduction of free speech “zones.” I am pointing to something different, albeit complementary: the failure of the University to vouch for safety and civility outside the straitened terms of these self-created zones: the crushing disinterest of the University in actively defending safety and civility for dissidents.

As far as I know, no UC Chancellor has unilaterally declared his or her concern for the treatment of protesters. No police scandal should be necessary for such a declaration. After the botched police breakup of the Wheeler Hall occupation on November 20, 2009, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of UC Berkeley “truly regret the incidents that brought physical and emotional injury to members of our community” and initiated a review of police actions. He did not characterize the kinds of incidents and agents that brought on this injury, however, nor say who was injured. He leaves open the possibility that protesters themselves were on both sides of the injury line, while leaving the dynamic of the events undescribed. Of course it’s often the intention of protesters to provoke somebody. But the provocation of protesters is referenced by UC officials again and again while their interlocutors, and the history of their exchanges, at best remain tactfully faceless and at worst are erased from existence. As we know, the concentric circles created by the campus/community wall and repeated by the designation of special zones within the campus work against protesters and never for them (paralleling in this way the Student Code of Conduct). Further, each constructed circle relieves the University of more of its responsibility even as it places additional restrictions on protesters. It protects “normal operations” from free speech that counts as unsafe without defending free speakers from police harassment within the “normal” sphere–or from attack in the community, where they are subject to violent racist threats. While the University worries about the safety of policemen, it seems to lose no sleep on violence against its students. It relieves itself of the responsibility to criticize what happens off-campus—even if it happens next door, like the so-called “Compton Cookout”–or with private money, like the Sarah Palin banquet at Cal State Stanislaus or the racist UCSD “humor” magazine The Koala. It implies that policemen are entitled to break students’ fingers with batons and point loaded guns at them when students are not within the “place, time, and manner” restrictions. These restrictions are restrictions on civility, but in one direction only. And they are so egregious that they must damage our confidence, not only in democracy, but in any public safety that would merit the term “public.”

So, on the one hand the Orange County D.A. charges 19 students and workers variously with trespassing, disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, “false imprisonment” (which I take to mean that someone blocked an exit), “obstruction of a public place,” and “being a public nuisance.” The fascinating language of the D.A.’s press release phrases legal and routine actions in a vocabulary of emergency and denunciation. The defendants are “accused” of disorderly conduct; they are also “accused” of “trespassing onto the UCI campus, entering the fifth floor of Aldrich Hall, and gathering outside the Office of the Chancellor.” (Why not “accuse” them of using the stairs instead of the elevator, or of wearing T-shirts? There’s no difference.) “400 UCI employees,” according to the D.A., were “evacuated” because of the 17 students within, although they never threatened anyone, orally or otherwise. On the other, after an account of this sit-in appeared in the Orange County Register, Orange County community members distinguished themselves with an avalanche of vicious comments. They were bothered primarily by the dark skin color of many of the students, and secondarily by the criticism of “heteronormativity” that appeared in their literature. People called for background checks on the citizenship of the students, commented that “it looks like some of them are illegal,” asked if any “American-born” students were left at the University, blamed “diversity,” and recommended deportation: “Expel, deport or incarcerate as appropriate UCI.” Along the way they opined that “hetero- behavior IS the norm of society.” In comments that were deleted because I myself objected to them (which I afterward regretted—it was an impulse), people commented directly on the physical appearance of students, used racial slurs, and suggested attacking them with dogs. Would it not have been appropriate for someone, for example the Dean of Students, to write in under his own name to say “Please do not advocate attacking our students with dogs. I do not appreciate it”? Yet 400 UCI employees were “evacuated” lest they be harmed by students, which, as someone who was on the fifth floor for the whole thing, I can say was certainly the only thing that disrupted these employees’ ability to work.

(Read the rest of the letter)

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