UCSB has been in the news lately for a variety of reasons, some positive, some not. One of the recent incidents that received national media attention involved an associate professor who was arrested and charged with vandalism, battery, and theft for taking a pro-lifer’s graphic poster and the events that ensued. It sparked a discussion about freedom of speech, and what is, and is not, protected under the First Amendment. The incident has given everyone an opportunity to take a crash course in what freedom of speech means in practical terms. It may not mean what you think.
Freedom of Speech Is Perched on a Slippery Slope
In school we learn that the freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by our Constitution. We are told that most types of speech are protected, with some exceptions. For example, you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. This simple discussion makes it seem that this freedom has a clear definition that is understood by all and rarely challenged. However, a little research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website dispels this notion. In case after case, FIRE describes situations in which people, and even the courts, disagree about what freedom of speech means.
At the beginning of March, a UC Santa Barbara associate professor became embroiled in a free-speech debate. Dr. Mireille Miller-Young allegedly took and destroyed a graphic poster being displayed by the Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, a pro-life group from another college, in a free-speech zone in front of the Arbor on the UCSB campus. Two young women from the group, Joan and Thrin Short, followed Miller-Young as she took the poster to her office. One of them videotaped the encounter and posted it on YouTube. The associate professor has been charged with vandalism, battery, and theft.
The videotape of the encounter is both interesting and frustrating to watch. It’s like watching a horror movie in which you want to tell the victim not to walk into the dark house. You can see how easily the whole thing could have been defused. Abortion sparks intense feelings in people. However, what you do about these feelings is at the root of the incident. Miller-Young felt strongly that she shouldn’t have to look at graphic images of aborted fetuses, and the women from Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust felt that they had a right use this type of shock tactic to promote their cause.
UCSB Vice Chancellor Michael D. Young sent an email to the campus community highlighting the fact that the practice of free speech can be messy and that there are definite pros and cons. He said, “Freedom and rights are not situational: we either have freedom of speech or we do not. We cannot pick and choose which views are allowed to be aired and who is allowed to speak.” He added, “The price of freedom for all to speak is that, at times, everyone will be subjected to speech and expression that we, ourselves, find offensive, hateful, vile, hurtful, provocative, and perhaps even evil. So be it!”
He talks about the disruptive influence of certain groups and a way to avoid their impact. Young said, “You do not have to listen to, look at, or even acknowledge speech or expression that you find provocative or offensive. The Arbor Mall is a free-speech area, as is the area in front of the University Center. If you do not want to be confronted by certain materials or expressions, you should avoid the free-speech areas when you expect that you might encounter them, or simply ignore them. I promise you the visitors will hate that.”
This letter is a lesson in itself. It shows that free speech on university campuses isn’t so free. There are areas designated for its expression. People are allowed to pass out pamphlets, set up displays, or share other types of information only in certain zones. At UCSB, this is in the Arbor Mall and in front of the UCen. However, UCSB isn’t alone in assigning designated free-speech areas. This is a common practice on university campuses.
What can be gleaned from this experience is the fact that freedom of speech is a right that cannot be taken for granted. It is something that needs to be constantly cultivated and refined. What we think constitutes free speech, and where we want to see it practiced, should be part of a constant discussion.