We have been following the controversy surrounding the confrontation of Feminist Studies Associate Professor Mireille Miller-Young with pro-life advocates on campus. Miller-Young led her students in attacking the pro-life display, stealing their display, and then committing battery on one of the young women. Thrin Short, 16, and her sister Joan, 21, filed complaints and Miller-Young was charged with criminal conduct including Theft From Person; Battery; and Vandalism. Miller-Young was convicted and sentenced in August. Despite the shocking conduct of Miller-Young and the clear violation of the most fundamental values for all academics in guaranteeing free speech and associational rights, the faculty overwhelmingly supported Miller-Young and the university decided not to impose any meaningful discipline. Now, the victims are suing Miller-Young, the UC Regents and others in seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. The lawsuit could finally force the University to explain its inexplicable response, or lack thereof, to the highly improper conduct of Miller-Young. As discussed below, Michael D. Young, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, not only issued a statement that seemed to blame the victims but faculty defended Miller-Young’s conduct, including arguments that the pro-life advocates were “terrorists”; Miller-Young’s response was due to that fact that she was pregnant and even that her expression of satisfaction was nothing more than her “mask” from a “cultural legacy of slavery.” Those arguments are likely to find little traction in a court of law.
The nine-page complaint was filed Thursday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court by Life Legal Defense Foundation. As discussed below, it could raise some interesting vicarious liability and discovery issues.
While I have been criticized on this blog for my objection to the lack of serious institutional discipline for Miller-Young by the university, I continue to view her conduct as anathema to all intellectuals and these defenses as not just immaterial but bizarre. Indeed, female professors have fought for decades to refute arguments that such conditions as pregnancies make them emotionally vulnerable or in any way unable to conduct themselves as academics. More importantly, Miller-Young 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. However, it became clear later that students in her department have been taught that such action is not only justified but commendable. Pro-life advocates have been denounced as simply terrorists or haters who deserved what they got from Miller-Young and her students.
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.
Miller-Young’s view that pro-life advocates are “terrorists” were picked up by her students and continue to be heard in her defense. Others have insisted that such images were virtually hate speech when displayed in front of a pregnant woman (Miller-Young was three-months pregnant at the time).
Various faculty members publicly supported Miller-Young and some wrote to the court to ask for leniency. Some publicly denounced the media and the victims in this case. History professor Paul Spikard (left) wrote to object to the court that Miller-Young is the victim of “an energetic smear campaign . . . fomenting racial hatred and rallying right-wing political sentiment.” He insisted that the media was intent on displaying another example of “an Angry Black Woman.” What is striking is that Spikard opposed even a mandatory anger management class in the case. It is hard to see how the media is concocting a smear campaign when a professor is seen stealing a display and trying to stop an act of free speech on campus. Most academics would be horrified by that scene, including professors who are not part of a “right-wing political” agenda. I have an academic agenda that includes faculty member respecting and encouraging free speech on campus. Spikard teaches social and cultural history and has a faculty bio stating that he has been “blessed to spend most of my life immersed in racial populations and cultural traditions that are different from my own.” I have no question that that experience has given him great insight into cultural and racial controversies. However, I fail to see the dominant race issue in a professor acting in this reprehensible and violent manner. We all teach different subjects but we are committed to an intellectual enterprise. We inherited a commitment as educators to protect the unique environment — and our students — on campus. It is not a protection from ideas but a protection of an environment for the free discussion of ideas. It is a safe harbor for ideas even when many would silence such debates outside of our walls. In this case, it was a professor who was physically seeking to silence those with opposing views.
Another to the court came from Eileen Boris, a professor in the Department of Feminist Studies. Boris picked up on the earlier defense that the signs were traumatizing to a woman who was three-months pregnant. Boris told the court “she was at the stage of a pregnancy when one is not fully one’s self fully, so the image of a severed fetus appeared threatening.” Boris then tries to deal with the fact that Miller-Young is smiling and both she and her students appear to be proud of their actions in the video. Professor Boris dismisses the video record as misleading and inaccurate. She explained to the court that “[i]f she appears smiling on camera, she is ‘wearing the mask,’ that is, she is hiding her actual state through a strategy of self-presentation that is a cultural legacy of slavery.”
It is hard to see how a court is expected to ignore the record of the video under a “cultural legacy of slavery” claim. Miller-Young and her students referred to these young women as “terrorists” for voicing their views and creating their display. There was not a hint of hesitation on the video in seeking to stifle free speech.
I previously wrote a critical piece of the response by Michael D. Young, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs which seems to treat the pro-life demonstrators as the problem while encouraging faculty and students not to attack such “outsiders.”
In addition, some 2000 faculty and students have signed a petition in support of Miller-Young while only 150 have signed a counter petition calling for her termination.
Students have clearly learned a lesson from Professor Miller-Young that free speech is only protected when we agree with the message. Consider the truly chilling view of UCSB sophomore Katherine Wehler, a theater and feminist studies major: “They are domestic terrorists, because the definition of a terrorist is someone who terrorizes.” Wehler added:
“I have a lot of feminist friends that went to them [pro-life protesters] with an educated academic response, because they were extremely triggered by these images, and the activists were saying this is for ‘women’s rights,’ . . . As feminist scholars and activists, we were insulted to hear that their cause is for women’s rights, because we felt personally attacked as women. Then, we were repeatedly called murderers. That is not okay. . . In my opinion, Professor Miller-Young would never attack anyone as the media suggests unless feeling an invasion of her own personal space like anyone else would in a fight or flight situation . . . If the university did decide to revoke her employment, there would be a large uproar because she is so celebrated.”
These letters reflect how such views of intolerance can take hold in students. I have become alarmed by the increasing anti-speech activities by students. For decades, social activists, including feminists, faced this type of intimidation in having signs ripped down or being called criminals. Campuses were the bastions of free speech and students were its champions. Increasingly however the West seems to have lost patience with free speech and often the voices for speech regulation and even criminalization are coming from the left.
As someone long associated with the free speech community, I find the Miller-Young scandal — and the response to it by faculty and students — to be incredibly depressing and alarming. Much of the response from faculty appears to be influenced by their underlying agreement with the political views of Miller-Young. I would be surprised if the same response would be forthcoming if a conservative professor assaulted a pro-choice table and verbally denounced those arguing for the rights of women. In the end, it should not matter what the respective political views were in such confrontations. Faculty cannot lead a mob or fight the exercise of free speech without destroying the defining principles of our profession.
The lawsuit will now force the issue of the university’s lack of response. The lawsuit advances two claims based on the denial of federal and state free speech rights. One claim is based on the California Civil Code guaranteeing that the women would “be free from violence and intimidation by threat of violence against their property because of their religious and political beliefs and the peaceful lawful expression of those beliefs.” The fourth claim is a straight battery allegation.
The third claim is notable since it is part of the Hate Crime provisions generally supported by advocates as tools for fighting racism, sexism, and other prejudices.
Miller-Young only paid $492.40 in restitution to the Shorts and another $295 in fines. What will be interesting about the litigation will be the question of discovery and whether the court will allow the university’s post-event conduct to be considered as well as the question of scope of material that can be accessed by the plaintiffs. Miller-Young clearly committed acts that she admitted were criminal but also acts that constitute such torts as assault and battery. It is the nexus to the university that will be interesting. They could attempt simple vicarious liability through respondent superior. The classic defense is that she was acting outside the scope of her duties — a strong claim here. However, the lack of serious discipline conflicts with the defense on some level. Then there is the failure of the university to protect such free speech exercise — a claim that could make the later lack of action more material for discovery and trial.
The university can be expected to file robust dispositive motions. Yet, a total dismissal seems unlikely given the battery claims and the prior conviction. However, it could prune away a couple of the other claims. In doing so, the university would be arguing for a narrower reading of hate crimes provisions, an ironic position given the defenses raised by supporters of Miller-Young. The university could argue that an employer should not be liable for the actions of such an employee — a position that would be viewed as weakening these laws.
We will continue to follow the lawsuit.