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Removal of white nationalist posters at UCLA raises questions of free speech

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Ignacio Andrade/Flickr Creative Commons

"UCLA is a state actor that abides by the First Amendment. We recognize that speech, even if it's horrible, it protected," says professor Jerry Kang of UCLA's Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Early this week, officials at UCLA removed recruitment fliers for a white nationalist group that were posted around the campus.

The removal of the fliers was not for their content but because administrators say the leaflets were posted by people from outside the university and without permission, raising questions about freedom of speech and expression at places of learning.

For more on how UCLA is tackling this, Take Two's A Martinez spoke with law professor Jerry Kang. He's also the vice chancellor for the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.


The origin of the posters on the UCLA campus

It's an example of outside provocateurs who take advantage of an open campus to kind of shock and offend. It's essentially internet trolling culture that's kind of bleeding into real space. No one likes to be shocked by seeing white nationalist posters attacking your community but that's exactly what they're doing.  

UCLA's policy on the posters

What I want to make clear is, how a university responds to these kinds of messages is constrained by the laws that exist under the First Amendment. UCLA is a state actor that abides by the First Amendment. We recognize that speech, even if it's horrible, it protected. And I'm not talking about conduct in the form of trespass, vandalism, true threats, or real harassment. But speech, even if it's completely despicable, is generally protected. So, what we do is to apply content neutral regulations that say, hey, if it's an unauthorized poster in areas that are not actually demarcated as areas where people can poster, then regardless of whether it's advertising a bake sale, a surprise party, or in this case, advocating for white nationalists political commitment, those posters are not authorized and they will be taken down. The only other thing that we can do is to exercise our voice. On the one hand, we need to be neutral in some contexts. On the other hand, we as administrators can speak very forcefully and strongly condemn hateful rhetoric, demagoguery, and messages that undermine the importance of community— especially in these times. 

The question of equity in campus clubs 

I think this raises the question about what it means to be about equality or equity and sometimes you can make the formal claim, if you could have black pride, why can't you have white pride? If you can have a Latino student organization, why not have a White student organization. And if you were a Martian who just came down to Earth and never understood any bit of history or social context, that kind of formal equity would seem to make entire sense. In my view however, you can't actually understand something without appreciating history and social context. And the meaning of black Power if different from the meaning of white Power. The meaning of having an affinity organization is in part because you are part of an unrepresented group or come from a history where you were marked as an outsider, is very different from a group that actually emphasizes what it means to be part of the majority and historically dominant. 

UCLA's policy on freedom of speech 

Because we are an institution of higher learning, the idea that you should have the freedom to inquire and engage with substantial academic freedom is something that is kind of built into our D.N.A. So, we have to countenance a lot of difference, the ability to ask hard questions, and to probe them. That is what we stand for. In addition, because it is an open campus and because some areas are essentially public fora, which are kind of like, streets, sidewalks, and parks, there will be lots of people who are not connected with UCLA who come on campus and can actually state their views, often times aggressively, often times with some hostility, to people who are just walking by.  

We have some basic regulations that make sure that you can't be blaring with amplified speech at 2:00 AM— those kinds of regulations that are sensible for any kind of city area and we do apply those. But what we want to be is, most mindful of people who are either breaking these kinds of content neutral rules, in which case we have to actually make sure that we apply our standard policies. The most important thing that I want to underscore is that the university has to speak clearly that even though we embrace that kind of conversation, and even though we want to tolerate lots of different kinds of speech— some of it kind of hurtful and sometimes indeed, hateful— we as the university stand for a particular set of principles which include principles that promote tolerance and always dialogue over any form of demagoguery. 

How the recent rise in hate crimes effects free speech 

We don't to exaggerate and we don't want to suggest there's more problems then actually exist but sure, am I concerned about an increase in conduct, criminal or otherwise that is motivated by hatred? Absolutely. It's something that is part of being a realist and what we have to do is to be mindful that our job is to create an equal learning environment.... That recognizes that there is pain, and anger, and resentment, and just meanness everywhere. But to show that that's not how we operate here. And that the nation's future leaders trained at a place like UCLA, especially given the diversity of Southern California and a public institution, that we have to learn from each other what it means to lead in this new paradigm. 

To hear the full interview, click the Blue Arrow above. 

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