Like many people, I was disappointed by the effort at University of California at Irvine to ban the American flag. Yet, as a university professor, I have seen some senseless efforts by students who can bring more heat than light to some issues. The response has been a bit overblown, including a call for a state constitutional amendment, when the ill-conceived and insulting resolution was vetoed by a later school board. Moreover, the resolution never involved a ban on the American flag from the school but just from one area of the school. However, the report of a letter from some UC faculty has left me baffled in its suggested support in among academics for the premise of the resolution. While we all have different political and philosophical viewpoints, the flag represents first and foremost the protection of such differing viewpoints and the right to express them. We clearly have our problems and historical regrets, but the flag is a unifying symbol of our values, including the free speech rights that allow us to criticize our government and our history.
The original resolution was highly provocative and, in my view, fundamentally in error. The resolution called for banning the flag from the Associated Students’ Main space because “the American flag has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism” and that “freedom of speech, in a space that aims to be as inclusive as possible, can be interpreted as hate speech.”
I have previously written about how hate speech rules are threatening free speech principles. However the students clearly view the flag as primarily a symbol of our history rather than our values. A university is the very manifestation of the values of free speech and association that are protected by those values.
After this controversy erupted, largely conservative sites reported on a letter signed by professors (as well as students) that states the following:
We write to support the six members who offered the resolution to remove national flags from the ASUCI lobby. The university ought to respect their political position and meet its obligation to protect and promote their safety. The resolution recognized that nationalism, including U.S. nationalism, often contributes to racism and xenophobia, and that the paraphernalia of nationalism is in fact often used to intimidate. This is a more or less uncontroversial scholarly point, and in practice the resolution has drawn admiration nationally from much of the academic community. In fact, the resolution’s perspective has been completely borne out by recent events. Over the weekend, UCI has been inundated with racist, xenophobic comments and death threats against the students from people who are, precisely, invested in the paraphernalia of nationalism. UCI’s official Facebook page, for example, has filled up with violent and racist remarks. Its official moderator, representing UCI, has neither repudiated the comments nor deleted them–even the death threats. We are afraid that Chancellor Gillman’s response will have the effect of licensing further harassment. We admire the courage of the resolution’s supporters amid this environment of political immaturity and threat, and support them unequivocally.
I commend the faculty for standing up for the right of free speech and denouncing the threats directed against these students. However, I was surprised to read the faculty believe that there is broad academic support for the claim that “the resolution has drawn admiration nationally from much of the academic community.” While obviously flags are symbols of nationalism, that face does not translate to a view that it is a form of hate speech or is the very symbol of colonialism and imperialism. I view that flag as the symbol of the rule of law. We do not always meet the ideals of that flag but the flag represents our common beliefs as a pluralistic nation based on principles of equality and due process.
Indeed, given the sloppy and ill-conceived rhetoric of the resolution, I fail to see the resolution as advancing “a more or less uncontroversial scholarly point.” If you cut away the majority of the resolution to leave simply the notion of flags as a symbol of nationalism, you can find a notion of broad support. However, the resolution went far beyond that notion and it is a highly simplistic point since many things can be used as different symbols in different contexts. That becomes nothing more than a tautology.
Moreover, I can understand that, in the midst of the threats, that the faculty wanted to state that “We admire the courage of the resolution’s supporters amid this environment of political immaturity and threat, and support them unequivocally.” the letter concludes. However, the resolution itself was immature and intolerant. While we should all support the right of free speech unequivocally, the resolution itself is not in my view a matter for unequivocal support.
In the end, it is important to reaffirm the right of these students and these professors to be able to speak their minds without threats or harassment. Those calling up the campus to threaten these students and faculty are blind to their own hypocrisy and intolerance. My quibble with the letter is not that faculty may agree with the resolution, but the statement of broad support for aspects of this resolution.
Accounts state that Rei Terada, a professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. Professor Terada has an impressive academic background with books on history of philosophy and romanticism. However, I have not seen any confirmation of who authored the letter. Once again, if Professor Terada authored the letter, I would be interested in hearing more of her views on the controversy. This can be a learning moment for the university in discussing the meaning and function of symbols. This may be a case where we simply approach the symbol of the flag from differing academics perspectives. Perhaps, once the over-heated rhetoric subsides, we can have a more productive dialogue of such underlying issues.