The chancellor of the University of California (Davis), Gary May, is under fire for comments that he made before the recent riot at the school by Antifa and other protesters. May uses a video to attack conservative Charlie Kirk and to emphasize that “counsel” told him that the school’s hands are tied in trying to stop the event. Conservative sites like The College Fix have accused May of spreading the very “misinformation” and hate that he accuses Kirk of spreading through his speeches. There are serious questions raised by May’s inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric before the violence at the University Credit Union Center.
At the event, police and students attending the event were assaulted, leaving at least one officer injured. The protesters smashed windows, hurled eggs, and used pepper spray to attack the event.
Just before this violence, May decided to issue a statement condemning Kirk and accusing him of being someone who has “advocated for violence against transgender individuals” and spread “misinformation.”
In the video message below, May states:
“Thank you for sharing your distress at a student group hosting a speaker who is a well-documented proponent of misinformation and hate, and who has advocated for violence against transgender individuals. as a campus that is committed to our principles of community. UC Davis stands with our transgender and non-binary Aggies in opposition to this hateful and divisive messaging. UC Davis did not invite this individual and is not sponsoring this event.”
There are elements of the videotape that I appreciate. I think it is appropriate to acknowledge how difficult such speeches and viewpoints can be for members of the community. It is also reasonable to note that some may feel that such views are devaluing or isolating, but that the university remains committed to protecting the rights of all of its members from the left to the right of the political spectrum. However, May’s remarks are very odd (and at points ominous) in a number of respects.
First, and foremost, May accused Kirk of calling for violence against transgender individuals — a very serious and potentially defamatory statement. May gives no evidence that Kirk has ever advocated violence of any kind against transgender people. The remark may be based on a recent article (picked up by many in the media and social media) that said that Kirk called for the “lynching” of transgender individuals. The Sacramento Bee yesterday apologized for that claim.
Bee opinion writer Hannah Holzer (a Davis alumni) wrote the piece titled “Another fascist is coming to UC Davis. How should the community respond?” and described Kirk as a “vocal transphobe and Donald Trump fanatic” and added that, “among his most atrocious comments, Kirk suggested transgender people, who he has referred to as ‘garbage,’ ought to be lynched.’” The Bee later doubled down on the claim on social media, tweeting, “Charlie Kirk has called for the lynching of trans people, a comment that should warrant the cancellation of his speaking engagement at UC Davis.”
It was untrue and Kirk legitimately threatened to sue. The comment was actually made in a response to a statement from female college swimmer Riley Gaines about how trans swimmer Lia Thomas had exposed male genitalia in front of women in the locker room. Kirk responded that “someone should have took care of it the way we used to take care of things in the 1950s and 60s.” He said that he was referring to such exposure leading to arrest by police in prior years. You can reach your own interpretation of these remarks, but Kirk did not in fact refer to lynching or expressly endorse violence. The counsel for the Sacramento Bee clearly made that evident to their client and the newspaper publicly retracted the false claim.
May’s statement was also troubling in his effort to signal the displeasure of the university and its reluctance in allowing such a speech. While noting that the University is “committed to the First Amendment,” he added that it is “required to uphold it.” That is certainly true as a state school. However, at various points, May indicates that he sought legal advice on whether they had to allow the speech and that he was told that they must do so “even if the speaker’s intended speech is loathsome and hurtful to me and to others in our campus community.” He repeatedly emphasizes that “counsel” has told him that there is a “heavy burden” that they must shoulder to shutdown the speech and that they cannot satisfy that burden.
A few hours later, the violent protest unfolded.
May’s conflicted and concerning comments are reminiscent of the response of another chancellor in a free speech controversy. In 2014, pro-life advocates Thrin Short, 16, and her sister Joan, 21, were manning a table with literature opposing abortion on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Suddenly, Feminist Studies Associate Professor Mireille Miller-Young appeared with her students and attacked them and destroyed their display. Miller-Young later pleaded guilty over the criminal assault. Nevertheless, faculty and students supported her actions, even supporting the claim that the pro-life advocates are akin to “terrorists.”
Even without the criminality, Miller-Young 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. The Shorts 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 a video, 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.
That is when Michael D. Young, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs issued a statement that appeared to condemn the pro-life advocates over the incident while feigning support for free speech. 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.” 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 restraint when people come to campus to speak in “offensive, hateful, vile, hurtful, provocative, and perhaps even evil” ways. In the end, you are not sure if Miller-Young was the culprit or a victim in these alleged criminal acts.
It is common for administrators to give a nod to free speech before eviscerating the underlying principles. We saw that recently in the comments of DEI Dean Tirien Steinbach, who prefaced her condemnation of a conservative federal judge speaking at Stanford by noting her support for free speech.
The May statement has many of the same signaling and mixed messaging. Not only does he repeat a false allegation against the speaker, but makes clear that Kirk (and by extension the faculty and students attending the event) are hateful and unwelcomed. The video is clearly designed for the university to take a side rather than calling for the community to support the diversity of opinions and free speech on campus. What is notable is that May is not speaking as an individual in this capacity. He has a right to express his personal opinion. Instead, he is speaking as the representative for the university at large to condemn the underlying views of Kirk and his supporters.
I am not here to defend Kirk. He does not need my defense and, more importantly, the test of free speech is to defend the right despite objections to the content of the speech.
As a free speech advocate, I often defend those with whom I disagree, including comment on the left on “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also supported the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. Yet, those extreme statements from the left are rarely subject to cancel campaigns or university actions. There remains a sharp difference in the response to controversial conservative figures on campuses.
May’s comments are likely to be celebrated rather than condemned at Davis. However, they reinforce the viewpoint of intolerance at many schools. The First Amendment may have forced this state school to respect free speech, but there is little evidence of support for its underlying principles and purpose in May’s comments. It is tolerance for free speech “on advice of counsel” only. That is hardly a resounding defense of the principles of free speech in higher education.