How the UC system is bracing for an escalation of political clashes ahead of Trump

It was the biggest political showdown at UC Davis in years: Hundreds of students and activists turned out last week with protest signs and noisy chants, ultimately shutting down a planned talk by provocative conservative Milo Yiannopoulos.

Get ready for more like it.

As Donald Trump prepares to be inaugurated Friday as the nation’s 45th president, university students and officials are bracing for an escalation in campus political clashes and the sticky free-speech issues they present.

Yiannopoulos — who is scheduled to speak at UCLA, UC Berkeley and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo over the next three weeks as part of his national “Dangerous Faggot” tour — may be the firebrand of the moment, but university officials believe that Trump’s election has emboldened more voices like his.

“People feel enabled and at more liberty to push each others’ buttons. It’s arguably now politically correct to be politically incorrect,” Jerry Kang, UCLA vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, said Sunday. “There will be greater stress.” 

UC Davis Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter said he worries that outside groups are using college campuses to stage conflicts intended for the national stage, and he is struggling to protect open speech in that field of landmines. 

“I get very, very alarmed with folks who don't treat [freedom of speech] for the treasure that it is,” he said. The university is a place for reasoned debate, he said, not “one group screaming at another.”

The question, campus officials say, is what should universities do about it. 

So far, the UC system has resisted calls to cancel the Yiannopoulos talks. UC President Janet Napolitano and the Board of Regents’ advocacy of fighting offensive speech with “more speech” rather than censorship was included in “Principles Against Intolerance” approved by UC regents last year as guidelines for the 10-campus system. Campus administrators are counseling a similar approach to those urging a ban on Yiannopoulos.

At UC Berkeley, administrators have received hundreds of letters from faculty, students and others demanding they bar Yiannopoulos from speaking on Feb. 1. One letter from a dozen faculty members argued that his talk could be canceled on the grounds that his actions — which they called “harassment, slander, defamation, and hate speech” — violated UC Berkeley’s code of conduct.

But Nils Gilman, associate chancellor, said they would safeguard Yiannopoulos’ right to speak as they would for anyone else. 

“It is not just a responsibility but really an operational necessity that we maintain an environment where free expression of ideas can take place,” he said. 

Gilman also said university officials will serve as “referees trying to maintain a level playing field” in accommodating Yiannopoulos. For instance, the College Republicans, the student club sponsoring the talk, will be charged the same fees for security as other groups for other speakers even though Yiannopoulos’ visit will entail higher costs, Gilman said.

Berkeley’s Robert Dudley, a professor of integrative biology who recently served on a faculty committee on campus demonstrations, said that preemptively barring a speaker or physically disrupting events to stop them feeds into a dangerous cycle of escalation. 

“Protest is one thing; disruption is another,” he said. “It is antithetical to political discourse.”

Dudley pointed out that Berkeley allowed African American student organizations to sponsor a 2012 campus visit by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has been widely accused of anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia. The UC president at the time, Mark Yudof, denounced Farrakhan’s message, but defended his right to speak.

“The concept of prior restraint has a long history in this country, and there are very good reasons why it isn’t allowed,” Dudley said. “And it could just as easily be used against ideas on the left. I am a little surprised why some of my colleagues don’t see that.”

Ralph Washington Jr., UC Student Assn. president, said students had the right to protest and called on administrators not to defend oppression in the name of free speech. He said some students believe their complaints about racist, sexist or homophobic remarks by other students, faculty and staff members have been dismissed by administrators.

“It’s unreasonable to expect people to silently accept someone espousing viewpoints that perpetuate a culture that oppresses them,” Washington said. “And it’s enraging and hurtful to know that your institution supports the presence of someone expressing those views.”

Kang, whose diversity office was created at UCLA in 2015 to address such issues, said universities can and should speak out to voice values of equity and inclusion. When an outside provocateur plastered the campus with posters last year calling students and faculty members murderers, terrorists and “Jew-haters,” Kang and other administrators denounced him.

Kang has not decided what he will do about Yiannopoulos’ scheduled visit to UCLA on Feb. 2. But, bracing for more free-speech conflicts, Kang said his office hopes to plan both large forums and small gatherings to promote more student connections and encourage diverse perspectives through peaceful protest and civil discourse rather than the “brute force of loudness or physical threats to shut up.” 

He said the benefits of free speech also carry costs — such as allowing repugnant viewpoints to be voiced — and students who want “safe spaces” should also be willing to enter “brave spaces” with those they disagree with.  

“I’m appealing to the community for intellectual and political maturity,” Kang said.

As campuses prepare for walkouts and other actions on Friday to protest Trump’s inauguration, some UC Irvine faculty members have planned an “alternative inauguration”  to celebrate inclusiveness and social justice. The campus also will host a discussion Thursday to “find common ground in the midst of political divisiveness.”

Meanwhile, UC Davis officials sought to clarify what happened Friday at the Yiannopoulos event. College Republicans have claimed they were pressured to shut down the event; but university spokesman Andy Fell said the student group made the final call after police determined that there was a “strong possibility of escalating violence” because protesters took away barricades and were pressing up against the police line.

One student protester was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a police officer and battery on an officer whose hand was scraped. No property was damaged.

UC Davis, a campus of 35,000 students built on flat farmland between the liberal Bay Area and more conservative Sacramento, has struggled with incidents of hate speech in the rising heat of national rhetoric.

In February, three men were charged with public intoxication, and two of them charged with hate crimes, after an African American student said they assaulted her as she walked near her campus residence early one morning. All three were from Sacramento.

The year before, a Jewish fraternity was defaced with red swastikas. In a separate incident, tires were slashed and anti-Jewish religious slurs were scratched into the paint of nearly a dozen vehicles on a campus parking lot.

Five years ago, UC Davis officers pepper-sprayed seated demonstrators during an Occupy movement protest. Hexter said the security protocols that developed from that much-publicized incident better equipped campus officers to handle Friday's protests without incident.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down at UC Davis. Three students studying at an outdoor table said they had not participated in the protests but monitored them on social media.

Cecilia Plascencia, 19, a psychology major, said protests serve a positive purpose, though they should not be violent.

“It builds unity,” she said. “We are entering a period with a controversial president. It will show people that others are not afraid.”

But Carlos Novoa, 21, said no one should be shut down from speaking.

“We’re a college where we ought to be able to listen to other people’s opinions,” said Novoa, a history major from Fresno. “We wouldn’t like it if someone was silencing us.”

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