Despite the obvious free speech concerns, UCLA’s undergraduate student government unanimously passed a resolution last week to declare that any use of the term “illegal immigrant” is now deemed racist and offensive. It is an example of how anti-discrimination policies are cutting deeply into free speech. Millions of people in this country are indeed here illegally. While many would prefer to use “undocumented workers,” many others believe that these individuals are illegal by definition and should not be allowed to circumvent immigration laws. It is a worthy debate with arguments on both sides. However, I am very uncomfortable with students (who historically have been voiced for free speech) declaring that use of this descriptive term is now considered racist or prejudicial.
The resolution, entitled “Drop the I-Word,” stated:
“[W]e are aware that certain racially derogatory language used in media, political discourse and other institutional settings has historically bolstered the foundation for racially harmful actions, including racial profiling practices, punitive policies targeting socially marginalized groups, hate crimes and violence . . . the use of the term illegals (the ‘I-word’) and its derivatives when referring to people dehumanizes and divides communities, contributing to punitive and discriminatory actions aimed primarily at immigrants and communities of color . . . undocumented students at UCLA and across the UC have expressed their concerns and fear with the recent appointment of Janet Napolitano, former US Secretary of Homeland Security, as the new University of California President…”
The students also declared “Journalists have an obligation to use neutral language that promotes democratic dialogue and upholds professional ethics and standards, and the term illegals is incorrect and inaccurate usage, as well as unfair and offensive.” Some news organizations have agreed not to use the term while others have objected that the status of many of these individuals is by statute “illegal.”
My concern is that such declarations chill speech by declaring certain words to be de facto racist or prejudicial. We have seen recently students leading fights to limit speech, including the recently successful campaign of Jewish French students to punish people for speech on the Internet. While many prefer to use “undocumented workers,” others find that description as inaccurate and want to refer to the illegal status of the individuals as lacking entry papers or permission to remain in the country.
What do you think?