Halfway through a sleep-deprived week of final exams last June, UC San Diego students received what appeared to be a fairly uninteresting campus-wide e-mail from the university administration. With the subject line 'Review of PPM 510-1 Section I,' the message did not appear to many students to be the kind of thing that should take priority over, say, a 10-page paper due in 12 hours, or an entire bio-chemistry textbook left to memorize.
Those who bothered to open the e-mail and follow a few links found themselves slogging through the university's draft proposal of a new policy on 'Speech, Advocacy and Distribution of Literature,' a lengthy set of rules and regulations governing use of campus space for rallies and gatherings that critics-such as the ACLU-say will threaten students' and faculty's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
Among the guidelines laid out in the document (a 'revised' policy that will supersede the school's current, much shorter policy from 1981) are precise campus maps marking 'Designated Public Forums' for the exercise of free speech, a set of requirements for making reservations to hold protests in those areas, hours and decibel levels at which 'expressive activity' can occur and-in what has some members of the campus community suspicious about the policy's timing-a section reminding members of the university staff and faculty to keep their 'Personal Political Activity' separate from university activities while using university resources.
The e-mail informed students that the policy would take effect in two weeks, leaving them a small window-the last week of finals and the first week of summer vacation-for submitting comments.
According to an e-mail from UCSD Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Life Gary Ratcliff, the university's goal in revising the policy, which has gone unchanged for 26 years, was to 'define and clarify free speech and assembly areas and guidelines to ensure that all legitimate campus activities are allowed to occur without disruption. This includes preserving the safety and privacy of all members of the campus community in a way that is consistent with campus policies.'
As for critics' complaints that the new language will criminalize on-campus rallies, Ratcliff said 'the revised policy will have no impact on the ability of students and others to gather together and stage rallies. It will only clarify the guidelines for such activity, which will benefit all members of the campus community.... This policy does not seek to restrict freedom of speech or assembly activities. Like many universities, UCSD has a long tradition of supporting and upholding these types of activities. We do not anticipate that this new policy will impact the political climate on campus or the relationship between students, faculty and the administration.'
But if the week that followed the announcement of the new policy is any indication, the university might want to prepare for a fight with the students. Within 24 hours of the notification, brand new websites and Facebook.com groups devoted to discussing and organizing a student response to the policy had attracted more than 1,000 members. In heated message-board banter, students ranging from would-be anarchists to sorority girls to concerned members of evangelical Christian groups were debating the semantics of what it means to exercise your First Amendment rights on a college campus and sharing the e-mails they had sent to the university about the policy.
'Demand your rights or lose them,' wrote one member of the Facebook group, called 'UCSD, defend your freedom of speech NOW!'
'It's not just about personal views, it's about our free speech as dictated by our founding forefathers. Do not be silenced, do not let overpaid, underachieving bureaucrats force you to stay silent!'
Not all students were opposed to the policy. Betsy Valiant, a political science major who described her opinion as 'the opposite point of view of the majority of students,' said she agrees with what the university is trying to accomplish in the policy.
'I don't see it as limiting our freedom of speech. I see [the university] as concerned for the majority of the students who are bothered by some student organizations who preach instead of speak,' Valiant said. 'I actually think UCSD is starting to make regulations that are smart, comprehensive and helpful to the entire student population.'
But Juan Vazquez, a second-year student at UCSD who created the website www.ucsdfreespeech.com and was responsible for much of the organizing in the first few days after the notification, said most students who read the policy found themselves at least a little wary of the university's intentions. Those who didn't bother to read it, Vazquez said, aren't necessarily at fault.
'I hate the myth of UCSD having apathetic students,' Vazquez said. 'I strongly believe students care about their rights, and most are full of desire to express their opinions... but when an administration sends out a mass e-mail during finals season with a very unappealing subject line, students will remain ignorant about what's going on behind the scenes of the school they attend.'
Vazquez, who keeps the website updated with news about the policy, said the idea of a small group of students having to get a permit for a gathering is what concerned him the most about the policy. 'This is a true violation of our right to expression and it must be stopped,' reads the site. 'The future of student activism and public expression at UCSD is at stake!'
On June 11, three days after receiving the e-mail, between 80 and 100 students-mobilized mostly online-gathered for a highly charged meeting (some say protest) with then-Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Joseph Watson. During the tense exchange, students said they needed more time to spread the word about the draft proposal and submit comments before the policy was adopted.
The next day, students received an e-mail announcing a new deadline of Dec. 1. 'Had we not organized the rally,' Vazquez said, 'the policy would already be implemented right now.'
Administrators say the committee charged with revising the policy had originally intended to give a larger window to allow for feedback. 'Unfortunately, because of the backlog of work in the administrative records office... the policy was not circulated to the campus for comment until the end of spring quarter,' Ratcliff said. 'The committee realized immediately that more time was needed to review the draft policy.'
The extension might have eased student tension for a few months, but David Blair-Loy, legal director for the San Diego chapter of the ACLU, said the administration is going to be up against more than a few angry undergrads if the policy is adopted in its current form. In an eight-page letter submitted to UCSD on Nov. 19, the ACLU argued, citing case law, that 10 different aspects of the document are unconstitutional.
'As a state entity and university, UCSD should uphold the highest commitment to freedom of speech and exchange of ideas,' the letter said. In its closing, the ACLU said it remains 'ready and able to protect freedom of speech through litigation whenever necessary.'
'The policy may or may not have some legitimate goals, but they've gone way too far in clamping down on freedom of speech,' Blair-Loy told CityBeat in an interview. 'It basically eliminates significant avenues of protest and demonstration, marching or rallies. If it doesn't eliminate them altogether, it certainly curtails them.' The university, he said, is 'making it much more difficult to engage in those activities.'
The ACLU believes the root of many problems with the policy is its vague wording, like in a section of the document that prohibits speech that makes anyone an 'involuntary audience.'
'That's very dangerous,' Blair-Loy said. 'If I'm out on the street holding a rally and someone doesn't like what I have to say, are they an involuntary audience? By definition, the function of the right to freedom of speech is to enable people to say what they have to say.'
But the most constitutionally problematic section of the document, he said, falls under the heading 'Reservations,' in which the policy states that:
• an event or gathering that can 'reasonably be expected to attract a crowd of 10 or more people' requires a reservation,
• this reservation must be made at least one business day in advance and
• the registrant must identify at least one 'responsible person,' who will be legally and financially responsible for the event and activity.
Each of these stipulations could be described as excessive and, arguably, unconstitutional, Blair-Loy said.
'First of all, if I'm throwing a rally, I don't have any control over who is going to show up,' he said. 'I understand if you want to monopolize space-if you want to take over an entire park or area of the campus-it would make sense to require a permit, because you're taking up space, and the university would have to allocate resources for that. But 10 people is far too small of a group to require a permit for.
'Any time you have to go to the government and get a permit to engage in free speech, we call it a prior restraint,' Blair-Loy said. 'With rare exceptions... almost all prior restraints are unconstitutional. There's just no way in which a crowd of 10 people monopolizes the campus public space.'
The one-day-in-advance rule is rife with problems, as well, the ACLU argues.
'Suppose that something extraordinary happened and a group of students wanted to hold a spontaneous demonstration or rally to react to something that is breaking news,' Blair-Loy said. 'Are you saying I can't go down to the campus green and hold a demonstration about something I just found out about five minutes ago because I need a permit a day in advance? That's an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.'
But perhaps the most clearly unconstitutional part of the document, he said, is its apparent attempt to hold one person 'legally and financially responsible' for the actions of a group.
'Suppose I give a speech and somebody gets angry and starts a riot.... I cannot and should not be liable for that. It's not right, it's not fair, and it's not constitutional to be held responsible for the conduct of others,' Blair-Loy said. 'What that does, effectively, is force people to give up the right to freedom of speech. I mean, there's no way I can guarantee that everyone who participates in a rally is going to abide by Emily Post.... That's one section I find seriously troubling.'
Overall, Blair-Loy said, the document reads like a reactionary response to what might have started out as a reasonable desire to regulate the use of campus space.
'Holding people accountable for the actions of others-can you imagine a greater deterrent to freedom of speech? They just went way overboard. And maybe [the university] will say, ‘That's not what we meant,' but then, if that's not what you meant, what did you mean?'
As for the section of the policy regarding faculty's 'personal political activity,' the ACLU wrote that the provision 'threatens to chill protected speech by faculty and staff.'
'[E]ven in an ‘institutional role,' or during ‘University activities,' faculty and staff retain First Amendment rights to speak on political issues,' the letter continues, noting that both terms remain undefined throughout the document, leaving room for a wide range of interpretations.
While Blair-Loy declined to comment on possible reasoning behind the university's presentation of the revisions, the issue of faculty's rights-and the school's apparent desire to define what professors can say and in what context-is one that has some members of the campus community skeptical that the timing of the proposal was random.
Administrators say the committee charged with revising the policy began its work well before 2007, and Ratcliff emphasized that committee members 'performed their work unplugged from the stream of campus events that occur on a daily basis.' Still, some argue that it's difficult to ignore the fact that one of the most controversial student protests in recent UCSD history concerned the removal of two well-liked graduate-student teaching assistants, both highly visible activists on campus who say they were ousted from their positions for political reasons.
'My first impression when I heard about the policy... was that I felt the timing of the policy being released, and the short amount of time that was given before it was passed, was definitely a bit of a coincidence,' said Kent Lee, a recent UCSD graduate. 'It definitely felt like a sneak-it-past-the-students kind of thing.'
Lee, then a senior at UCSD's Thurgood Marshall College, was among the students who helped organize a walkout in support of former teaching assistants Scott Boehm and Benjamin Balthaser during the weeks that followed their controversial dismissal in April. Both TAs maintain that they were fired for criticisms they made outside of the classroom. Administrators have declined to comment on the reasons for their dismissal.
Boehm and Balthaser, both TAs in the college's Dimensions of Culture (DOC) program, say they were hardly the first to notice changes in reading material for the required yearlong course, which historically focuses on education from a multicultural perspective. Readings on ethnic and gender studies, cultural identity and class inequality form the basis of the curriculum, according to the program's mission statement.
But in the past few years, Boehm said, students and faculty have noticed a significant 'watering down' of the program, mainly through the removal of more radical readings. Critical race theory, Boehm said, has been all but eliminated from the curriculum. 'Now [students] are basically just being told to ‘celebrate diversity,'' said the graduate student, who believes he and Balthaser are just the latest in a long line of teaching assistants and faculty members who have been 'pushed out' of the program for speaking up against such changes.
'Of all the colleges'-within the university's six-college system-'Marshall has a unique role in addressing the crisis in diversity at UCSD,' Boehm said. 'And for so long, we had just been seeing things, in terms of the direction of the program, that seemed very clearly not in line with the historical mission of the college.'
Boehm said he believes the changes are the result of increasing pressure from parents and students, as well as shifts in the program's leadership-including an 'overhaul' of the curriculum by DOC director Abraham Shragge-during the past few years.
'There was a good deal of pressure in the late '90s and early 2000s from conservative parents and students, in which their logic was the following: Because they were conservative students, there was no way they could get an A in the class,' Boehm said. 'Basically, the idea was, ‘Let's tone it down a little.' It was really a change in catering to white, conservative, upper-middle-class students rather than minority students, which was always what [DOC] was sort of geared toward... and that's really palpable in lectures now.'
The Lumumba-Zapata Coalition (LZC), named for the original group of African-American and Chicano students who founded Thurgood Marshall College in the 1960s (when the faculty included the likes of activist Angela Davis), formed in April to discuss the changes. The group, which includes students, teaching assistants and faculty, was a push-back against what members call a shift away from the mission of the DOC program, Boehm said, adding that his and others' previous attempts to discuss issues with the college's administration had gone ignored.
For Lee, a student member of the coalition, the LZC's most important goal was the formation of an official college committee that brought students, TAs and faculty to the drawing board to review and direct the program's curriculum.
'For some people [in the LZC], it became more political, what was right to teach in DOC, what was wrong,' said Lee. 'I'm not sure exactly what's right to teach, but I think it's important for students to have the right to have some say in it.... When [Marshall College] started, it was focused on students having the ability to decide everything, and obviously the administration has moved pretty far away from that.'
Critics of the LZC, such as communications professor Michael Schudson, say the group's assessment of DOC's current state is unfounded, and that the organization is confusing its own political agenda with the mission of the college.
'Over time, I think D.O.C. has become more respectful of students who in sections voice reasoned arguments in support of politically conservative or moderate viewpoints,' Schudson wrote in a May 3 letter to the editor of the UCSD Guardian. 'More than a few times in D.O.C.'s history, faculty have had to remind TAs that D.O.C.'s aim is not political indoctrination.... [T]he LZC TAs are entitled to their opinions, but while teaching D.O.C. they are not entitled to substitute them for the curriculum the faculty has established in the course.'
On April 13, the LZC presented the provost of Thurgood Marshall College with a list of demands-among them, the formation of a curriculum committee that involved student and TA input; renewed efforts to recruit staff, faculty and TAs with a background in critical race theory, gender studies and social movements; and, notably, a call to 'stop the harassment and intimidation of teaching assistants, lecturers and professors who challenge the DOC program's commitment to fulfilling its original mission.' The demands have been endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, as well as at least 15 different campus groups, including both the Black and Muslim student unions, as well as by UCSD's Office of Academic Support and Instructional Services (OASIS).
Less than two weeks after submitting the demands, Boehm and Balthaser were informed that their teaching contracts would not be renewed for the upcoming school year.
Boehm, who received a Distinguished Teaching Award from the university in 2006, says both TAs were told repeatedly in private interviews with program director Shragge that the decision had nothing to do with the quality of their teaching. Both had received consistently glowing reviews from students, faculty and Shragge himself.
The program and the university both declined to comment on the reasons for the dismissals, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on internal affairs. In an e-mail, university spokesperson Dolores Davies emphasized that TAs at UCSD work under one-year contracts, and that Boehm and Balthaser simply 'did not have their contracts renewed for Fall quarter.'
Lee, who organized the May 3 student walk-out and protest that culminated in a heated discussion with members of the administration in front of the Chancellor's office-which, per the revised policy's rule that forbids rallies within 25 feet of the doors of any university building, will not be a designated free speech forum-said it was the administration's refusal to explain the removal of these instructors that inspired a lot of students who might not have otherwise been interested enough to get involved.
'Students really cared that these TAs, that had that taught them well and were really important to their first year, had been asked not to come back, with no explanation,' Lee said. 'A lot of students were angry about that, specifically, and the walkout was focused on that.
'I think they got removed because of what they were saying about the program, for speaking up about it,' he said. 'And it was definitely outside the classroom, so... it seems pretty clear that they exercised their First Amendment rights for something they felt they had the right to be worried about, and they got fired for it.'
As for whether there's a connection between the unrest of the spring and the new draft proposal, it all depends on whom you ask.
'The proposed policy revisions discourage staff and faculty from speaking against the university,' said Vazquez, one of the organizers against the proposed policy changes. 'I can't say for sure, but it's hard not to connect this with the rallies and organizing by the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition.'
For the TAs themselves-who say the American Association of University Professors has told them they probably would have a case if they were to take legal action against the university over their dismissal-it's all part of a larger picture.
'The administration will flat-out deny there's any relationship at all,' Boehm said. 'I know they were working on [the policy] for quite a while... but they're certainly connected in terms of illustrating how invested the university is in repressing student voice and organizing on campus.'
In an e-mail, Davies said there is 'absolutely no correlation between that activity and the free speech policy update. Students and other groups are more than welcome to stage protests and rallies at a wide range of venues on campus.'
The reference to 'personal political activity' mainly re-states guidelines that have actually been part of the UC system's regulations since 1970, administrators say.
Regardless of the document's intent, the administration seems to be on a different page from much of the campus community in terms of how the policy will affect the right to speech and assembly.
'Under the new proposed free speech guidelines, nearly everything we did as part of our campaign last spring in our attempt to draw attention to UCSD's failing commitment to campus diversity, minority-based education and quality leadership for its academic programs would be made illegal,' the LZC said in a recent statement. 'This is a tremendous blow to free speech on a campus already structured to stifle dissent and curtail public criticism of a university that is failing to meet the needs of a significant sector of its population on a daily basis.'
The university does appear to be taking steps to appease those who believe the policy revisions took place without adequate time for feedback from the rest of the campus and appointed two undergraduate students to a subcommittee in charge of reviewing the document. While no vote is needed for the policy to take effect, the university welcomes and will consider comments about the policy, Ratcliff said, adding that a public forum on the policy is planned for sometime in the near future.
'Depending on the input, additional edits may be required,' he said. 'Only when this process is completed and all interested members of the campus community have provided their input will the policy be adopted.'
Many students, however, aren't so sure. For those who see specifying the time, place and manner in which students are permitted to speak and be heard as a clampdown on free speech, there might be no amount of revision that would ease their qualms about the policy.
'I think it hurts everyone, hurts the university as a whole,' Lee said of the draft proposal. 'I think students having the ability to stand up and say that they don't think something's right, to demonstrate or to assemble-that's one of the ways to really draw attention to an issue. And to deny that, it's like the administration denying itself the opportunity to bring in more valued opinions from the people that they supposedly work every day to serve.
'It's really a big loss for everyone if they choose to pass this,' Lee said. 'They're only hurting themselves.'