google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Crisis over Expression Continues at UC Irvine

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crisis over Expression Continues at UC Irvine

Yesterday, a meeting of the UC Irvine student government Legislative Council was cancelled due to what campus police determined was a "viable threat of violence associated with the recent controversy over the display of national flags in the lobby of student government offices." Chancellor Gillman issued an accompanying statement decrying the threat of violence and declaring "Regardless of your opinion on the display of the American flag, we must be united in protecting the people who make this university a premier institution of higher learning."  This cancellation and threat of violence follows several days in which the student officers who had supported the removal of flags from a portion of the student government building had been receiving various forms of abuse, threats, and condemnation.

Although the Chancellor is to be commended for yesterday's statement decrying violence and threats against the student representatives, noticeably missing was any consideration or recognition of the role that his prior statements may have had in legitimating the demonization of the students.  You can find his earlier statement here.  Several things stand out in the statement:

First is his claim that "it was outrageous and indefensible that they would question the appropriateness of displaying the American flag on this great campus."  Chancellor Gillman is a constitutional scholar. Is he really saying that "questioning" the "appropriateness" of flying the flag on a college campus is "indefensible"?  Are we really to understand that at Irvine a discussion or debate about the meanings of national symbols (even our own) is now off the table?  

The second thing is his pointed thanks "to a member of our outstanding ROTC program, who volunteered to stand guard over the disputed flag while this issue was being resolved."  Suggesting that there was a need to "stand guard over the disputed flag" implies that the flag itself was under some sort of threat.  But what exactly was that threat?  Being moved to a different location?  Being folded up and given to the ASUCI President to keep as was done on a previous occasion?  These are threats? Implying that the vote implied a physical threat to the flag casts the student representatives as potential threats (leaving aside the fact that even Flag Burning has been declared protected speech by the Supreme Court).  

Now Chancellor Gillman insisted in his statement that if the students had acted in a private capacity and expressing personal views then there would be no reason to pay attention.  But frankly this seems like a fig leaf.  After all, the Chancellor issued his statement after the resolution had been vetoed by the Executive Council of the student government so there was no need for his condemnation.  Of course, I understand that some had spread a story about the resolution to parts of the media and that the Chancellor may have been worried about fundraising and political fallout.  But it is precisely when the principle of free debate is challenged that it is most incumbent on campus leaders to stand clearly in defense of it.  On March 8th the Chancellor did not do so.

There is an irony in this situation.  In the fall, UC was treated to statements issued by Chancellors on the necessity of civility in debate.  At the time, I discussed the dangers of coercion in this insistence on administratively demanded civility.  But here, if there is any incivility it is in the language of the Chancellor and the personal attacks on UCI Facebook and elsewhere against the student sponsors. Anyone reading the actual resolution--whatever they think of it in the end--could hardly consider it uncivil.  

There have been suggestions that moments like this suggest that University administration's should more forcefully distance themselves from student governments.  But that seems, unnecessary, unwise and unlikely to make a difference.  Anyone who confuses student governments with campus administrations or faculties is unlikely to be persuaded by some formal declaration.  Doing so would simply reduce a sense of shared enterprise on campuses.  And finally, the most appropriate stance for an administration in a case like this would have been a simple statement that it was a matter of the student government, that the administration was confident that its students would work that matter out, and that the appropriate thing would be for everyone else to allow the debate to take its course and ask questions if they wished.  Unfortunately that is not what was done.

Here are some links for those of you who are interested:

The Actual Resolution on the Flag Location. 

The most detailed reporting that I have found on the background to the Resolution

The Chancellor's Statement of March 8

Some information on Legislative Outrage

A Petition in Support of the Students who proposed the Resolution.


No comments:

Post a Comment