Affirmative action, anti-Israel protests highlight importance of free spech

Last fall, when school administrators proposed raising tuition costs by 22 percent, there was one thing that stopped them:  student protests. After students staged protests and went to meetings to plead their case, tuition hikes were dropped back down to five percent.

Free speech and the freedom to protest is one of the most fundamental parts of the college experience.  Two recent incidents in California colleges highlight the need for free speech.

Diversity Bake Sale

Members of the College Republicans (CRs) at UC Berkeley wanted to protest a Senate bill that is about to come across California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk regarding affirmative action.  The bill would overturn a ballot initiative passed by voters in 1996 that “outlawed” allowing public universities to consider race, gender and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

But it’s the way the CRs decided to protest that caused controversy. Last Tuesday they hosted a “diversity bake sale” that sold baked goods with prices set according to race. White students paid $2, Asians paid $1.50, Latinos paid $1, African Americans paid 75 cents, Native Americans paid 25 cents and all women were offered a discount of 25 cents.

When the sale was announced on Facebook a week prior, the backlash started.  Students, administrators, student government members, members of the local community, politicians, media members and, of course, Facebookers denounced the group and their initiative. They called for the CRs to lose funding, naming them racists and threatening physical violence.  Thankfully, on the day of the actual bake sale, the CRs were able to host their bake sale while hundreds of people came to counter-protest, and no violence ensued.

Which is kind of the point, isn’t it?

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The fact that the event sparked such strong feelings on both sides is exactly the point of free speech and protesting.  While the CRs had good intentions, the way they carried out the measure was certainly controversial. Nonetheless, it was taken out of context, probably because of how fired up racial tensions are these days, three years after electing Barack Obama.

But that’s okay, because the college campus should be the scene of young minds debating on topics of little to major importance, and we should fight to protect this right. So many unpopular ideas have started off across college campuses throughout history, only to later become the norm (see anti-Vietnam sentiment).  That testing ground is sacred.

That testing ground is also funny, especially since we as college students tend to not take ourselves as seriously as our senior compadres.  Although some people chose to take the matter to extremes, the CR president Shawn Lewis said the entire event was supposed to be satirical.  And it was, as one Facebooker pointed out.

“The educational value of this exercise will be lost when Pocahontas walks away with a truckload of free cupcakes,” wrote Mike Creamer.

Yet there are times when free speech on a college campus turns to something that no one is laughing at.

Irvine 11

One of those times happened in February of 2010 at UC Irvine.  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren had been invited to speak on the campus. Members of the Muslim Student Union planned to disrupt the speech, saying in emails that they “will not allow a platform for him to spread lies on our campus.”

Members from the group were successful, 11 of them as a matter of fact, now dubbed the ‘Irvine 11.”  These members interrupted the speech at alternating intervals, yelling out phrases like “war criminal” and “apartheid.”  Ten of the students were convicted of two misdemeanors, conspiring to disrupt a meeting and disrupting a meeting, and were given community service and probation as a sentence.

The event highlights the difference between free speech and protesting with that of being rude while infringing on others’ rights. The students who wanted their voices to be heard had, and still have, every right to stand outside of the meeting and make their feelings known. They also have every right to sit quietly in the meeting to listen.  But they do not, as the court found, have a right to infringe on the other students’ rights to hear what the Ambassador came to say.

That said, was it necessary to charge them criminally?  Could the protestors not have been escorted out, as they were, but not charged criminally?  Apparently not in Orange County. Some question if the convictions came along with some sort of anti-Muslim sentiment since similar protests, without convictions, have occurred in the golden state. Whether or not that is true is unknown, but what is known is that the convictions have served to put a damper on activism as students question whether their actions might land them in court.

Although a criminal conviction took punishment overboard, the event does serve on purpose. Perhaps it will also serve as a reminder on how to be civil when exercising your constitutional right to free speech, so that we can all continue to enjoy it for years to come.