We recently discussed the controversy surrounding a confrontation between Thrin Short, 16, and her sister Joan, 21, and Feminist Studies Associate Professor Mireille Miller-Young. Miller-Young has now been charged with criminal conduct including Theft of Person; Battery; and Vandalism. However, even that charge does not appear to have prompted an express and clear statement from the University denouncing Miller-Young or calling for the review of her academic position. To the contrary, in the first statement from the university, Michael D. Young, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, appears to spend more time alluding to the victims as the problem than addressing the allegedly criminal abuse by a member of the faculty. The letter below contains a series of backhanded references to those engaging in free speech demonstrations on campus. The problem it would seem is not Miller-Young as much as these troublesome “outsiders” and “evangelical types” who come to “create discord” and “promote personal causes and agendas.” In the end, you are not sure if Miller-Young was the culprit or a victim in these alleged criminal acts. While there are good sentiments expressed in this letter, I can understand why the pro-life community would view this letter as basically saying “please don’t beat the protests no matter how much they may deserve it.”
Even without the criminality, she engaged in an act that should be anathema for any academic or academic institution: she was trying to silence others on campus. Miller-Young has acted in a way that is anathema to all intellectuals. Ironically, she has acted in the same way that critics of early feminists and birth control advocates responded to their protests. Feminist signs and protests were attacked and students censored for their views. Yet, the University has been relatively silent. While it certainly can be noted that Young is speaking to the students and not the faculty (thus he is not in a good position to discuss the case), this is an unfortunate statement as the first and only substantive, high-level response to the incident.
The Shorts were handing out pro-life pamphlets when they say Miller-Young confronted them and became irate over their demonstration. They videotaped her after she appeared to organize students in yelling “take down the sign.” They say that she grabbed the sign and walked off–ignoring the protests of the teenagers. Campus police were called and Short says that she was pushed by Miller-Young three times — leaving bruises on her wrists — at an elevator confrontation.
On the video below, Miller-Young is seen taking the sign with graphic images and saying “I may be a thief but you are a terrorist.” At the elevator, she can be seen shoving the teenagers and blocking them. The fact (as noted by her students) that the teenagers do not go to the school is no excuse for this type of conduct. If there was some real violation in the protests (which seems dubious), Miller-Young has no authority to quash the speech. This appears a clear content-based act by Miller-Young. It is even more disturbing to see her encouraging her students to silence opposing views by stealing a sign. It is the very antithesis of the academic mission which is based first and foremost on free speech and association — and civility.
Miller-Young lists her areas as “Pornography; Sex Work; Black Film, Popular Culture and Art; Feminist & Queer Theory; African American & African Diaspora Studies; Visual Archives; New Media; Ethnography; Oral History.” Her bio states that she focuses on pornography and African-American women.
That is a highly disturbing video — made all the more problematic by Miller-Young leading her students in this type of misconduct.
Now into the fray comes Michael Young, who sent a long rambling letter to the community. In the letter, Young correctly notes that free speech requires tolerance and restraint. However, he does not directly even criticize Miller-Young while clearly describing the problem as the type of people who come to campus to espouse controversial positions like the victims in this case. The reference to “outsiders” and “evangelical types” would appear to refer to these young women who wanted to engage in classic free speech exercises. Young however encourages students and faculty to show restrain in the face of such efforts to create “discord” and “conflict.” They are told to “ignore” the “provocative and offensive” speech of such people and not engage in name-calling and more direct actions. Thus, the community is asked to show restrain when people come to campus to speak in “offensive, hateful, vile, hurtful, provocative, and perhaps even evil” ways.
That is not exactly what the free speech community expected from the university which appears far to understanding in how a faculty member led students in an attack on people advocating an opposing viewpoint.
Over the past several weeks, our campus has been visited by a number of outside groups and individuals coming here to promote an ideology, to promulgate particular beliefs (at times extreme beliefs), or simply to create discord that furthers a certain personal agenda. Some passionately believe in their causes, while others peddle hate and intolerance with less-than-noble aims. Whatever the motives and goals, the presence of such people and groups on campus can be disruptive and has the potential to draw us into the kind of conflict that puts at risk the quality of exchange of ideas that is fundamental to the mission of our university.
What is happening now is not new: evangelical types have been visiting UCSB and university campuses since time immemorial. What we see at UCSB today is simply the most recent generation of true believers, self-proclaimed prophets, and provocateurs. During the past few weeks, UCSB has been visited by various anti-abortion crusaders. Some have been considerate and thoughtful in promoting their message; others have openly displayed images that many in our community find distressing and offensive. We have also seen earnest and thoughtful religious missionaries, and we have seen proselytizers hawking intolerance in the name of religious belief. As a consequence of interactions with the more extreme of our visitors, students have expressed outrage, pain, embarrassment, fear, hurt, and feelings of harassment. Moreover, I have received requests that the campus prohibit the peddling of “fear,” “hate,” “intolerance,” and “discord” here at UCSB.
Those of you who know me are aware that I have strong views on the matter of intolerance. You also know that I hold equally strong views on the sanctity of free speech. If you have heard me speak at Convocation or at anti-hate events, or if you have seen me officiating at the Queer Wedding, you know that my message on both counts is clear. Recent events lead me to believe that this message bears repeating.
First, the principle of freedom of expression resides at the very foundation of our society and, most certainly, at the foundation of a world-class university such as UC Santa Barbara. Freedom and rights are not situational: we either have freedom of speech or we do not. We cannot pick and choose which views are allowed to be aired and who is allowed to speak. If that were the case, then only those in charge — those holding power — would determine who gets to speak and whose views are heard.
Second, freedom is not free. The price of freedom for all to speak is that, at times, everyone will be subjected to speech and expression that we, ourselves, find offensive, hateful, vile, hurtful, provocative, and perhaps even evil. So be it! Law and policy ban only an extremely narrow band of speech and expression — “yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre,” for example, and child pornography. The price we pay to speak our own minds is allowing others to speak theirs, regardless of how oppositional their views are to our own. Our Founding Fathers — all white men of privilege, some even slave owners — got it right when designing the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Having firmly stated my support for freedom of expression, I hasten to follow with a lesson my mother taught me when I was a small child, a lesson that has remained with me the rest of my life and that I relay to our entering students every fall at Convocation. My mother taught me that just because you can say or do something doesn’t mean that you should. Civility plays an important role in how we choose to exercise our right to expression. We all have the right to say odious things, to display offensive slogans and placards, and to hurt and disrespect groups and individuals that disagree with us. The question is: should we? Should we engage in these behaviors just because we can or because they serve our political, religious, or personal agendas?
At UCSB, our students have proven that we are better than this. While it has not always been easy, time and again UCSB students have demonstrated that they can disagree about the critical issues of our time — fundamentally and passionately but within a framework of humanity and civility, respecting the dignity of those whose views they oppose. Time and time again, UCSB students have demonstrated that they understand their role in defining the character and quality of this campus community — revealing their unwillingness to lower themselves to the tactics of those whose agenda comes wrapped in intolerance and extremism.
And now we are tested once again, outsiders coming into our midst to provoke us, to taunt us and attempt to turn us against one another as they promote personal causes and agendas. If we take the bait, if we adopt negative tactics and engage in name calling, confrontation, provocation, and offensive behavior, then they win and our community loses.
While urging you to engage with differing ideas and opinions in a civil manner, I also want to remind you that you have the option not to engage at all. You do not have to listen to, look at, or even acknowledge speech or expression that you find provocative or offensive. The Arbor Mall is a free speech area, as is the area in front of the University Center. If you do not want to be confronted by certain materials or expressions, you should avoid the free-speech areas when you expect that you might encounter them, or simply ignore them. I promise you the visitors will hate that. And, finally, if you think demonstrators, activists, or proselytizers are violating the law, report them to the UC Police Department. If you think they are violating campus policies, report them to the Office of Student Life (OSL). Similarly, if you feel harassed or think you are being subjected to offensive speech or material as an involuntary audience, please contact the Office of Student Life immediately. Katya Armistead, Associate Dean of Student Life and Activities, can be reached at 805-893-8912. If you do not reach her, someone at the general OSL number (805-893-4550) will be able to relay your message to her. The campus regulations address UCSB’s free speech policies further: www.sa.ucsb.edu.
What I am suggesting may not be easy, and it may feel more satisfying (at least for the moment) to lash out. (My mom often reminded me that doing the right thing is difficult.) If you feel that you must respond, hold a peaceful, thoughtful, civil, and dignified counter-demonstration, and show how students engage intellectually and politically at UCSB.