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A Voltaire Moment for Liberals

Defending the Right for All to Speak Freely


I am a lifelong liberal, a member of the ACLU, and pro-choice. I was arrested in a peaceful sit-in in Isla Vista protesting the curtailment of free assembly rights during the “troubles” of 1970. As a teacher with SBCC for 43 years, I have emphasized the supreme importance of encouraging the expression of a diversity of views. I mention these things only to establish some credibility with a mostly center-left Independent readership as I express my dismay at UCSB’s failure to unequivocally defend the free speech rights of conservative antiabortion activists, rights violated by the actions of Professor Mireille Miller-Young in a March 4 incident in the campus free speech zone.

The facts of the encounter are not in dispute. The activists had been distributing antiabortion literature in the zone for some weeks. When I encountered them in my regular walks through the area, they were civil to the point of being patronizing, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses that show up at our doors. They were displaying signs with graphic photos of aborted fetuses, but graphic displays, designed to draw our attention to a particular cause, are commonplace in the zone.

Prof. Miller-Young engaged the group in a heated conversation, then seized and later destroyed one of the signs, allegedly shoving an activist attempting to retrieve it. She has been charged with theft, battery, and vandalism. Her bizarre defense is that as a pregnant woman, she felt her safety imperiled by the activists and that she had a moral imperative to take the action that she did, ironically a rationale similar to that used by antiabortion extremists in defending criminal acts at abortion clinics.

Regardless of how her criminal case is resolved, the professor’s appallingly unprofessional conduct should receive appropriate sanctions from UCSB. Her behavior, however, could be dismissed as an aberration by one instructor. More troubling is the institution’s response to the incident as represented by the lengthy email that Vice Chancellor Michael Young sent to UCSB students on March 19, which ostensibly defends free speech but mostly blames the victims and contains only the most oblique criticism of Ms. Miller-Young’s actions.

The vice chancellor’s letter rightly affirms that: “Freedom and rights are not situational … we cannot pick and choose what views are allowed to be aired.” But that message is muddied if not contradicted by Vice Chancellor Young’s assertion that the campus is under siege by “outside groups” that seek to “create discord” and “peddle hate and intolerance.” In essence, he asserts that outside agitators are trying to stir up trouble. Sound familiar? This argument has been used countless times to discredit liberal groups exercising free speech. In fact it was used in the mid-1960s by UC officials and by Governor Reagan to delegitimize the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

The vice chancellor never mentions Prof. Miller-Young by name but does state that outside groups desire to provoke confrontation and that if “we take the bait” and engage in “offensive behavior” then “they win.” The implication is that the professor took the bait but that the ultimate blame for her “offensive behavior” lies with the provocateurs themselves.

Displaying a paternalism more appropriate for advising elementary-school students than young adults, Young suggests that if students want to avoid “pain, embarrassment, fear, hurt,” they should consider avoiding the free speech zone entirely. But a free speech zone is intended to provoke and challenge students, get them out of their comfort zones and expose them to new and sometimes unsettling ideas. Young’s advice can only have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas in the zone.

He says that if students feel they are being exposed to hate speech, a term whose ambiguity, as the ACLU has cautioned, creates a slippery slope for abridging free speech, they should call the UCSB Police. Pointedly, he does not also recommend that they should call the police if they observe the free speech rights of activists being violated, as occurred on March 4.

Young’s letter pays lip service to unfettered free speech but signals that some types of speech are more welcome than others. It is difficult for me to believe that if a conservative professor tore up a sign carried by a pro-choice activist with graphic photos of victims of botched abortions from the era when abortion was illegal, the vice chancellor would be describing that activist as an outside agitator who provoked the confrontation and is herself to blame.

The words attributed to Voltaire define the meaning of free speech. (You shouldn’t have to look this one up!) It is easy to defend free speech when the rights of our own side are in jeopardy. We don’t need a First Amendment to protect speech that most people are comfortable with. The true test is what we do when the other side’s rights are compromised. This is a Voltaire moment for UCSB and for the liberal community in Santa Barbara.

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