Even trickier than writing a workable policy with a 25-member committee may be defining freedom of expression.
Those who attended a public forum Monday to gather opinion on a draft version of UC Davis’ planned freedom of expression policy questioned restrictions that it includes and phrases they found vague or confusing. Phrases like:
“Prevent interference with university functions or activities.”
Listening and fielding questions from about 15 people at the Student Community Center on Monday were Provost Ralph Hexter and other ex-officio members of the committee that he tasked with “carefully drawing the line between expression that contributes to the healthy functioning of our university, and respects the rights of other members of our community, and expression that does not.”
The policy is one of the campus reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2011 pepper-spraying of protesters by campus police, which Hexter said represented “a breakdown in community.”
Mai Sartawi, a second-year law student from Jabriya, Kuwait, showed up with a copy of the three-page draft marked with a yellow highlighter. She noted that the draft policy calls for “reasonable protection for individuals who otherwise may be involuntary audiences or who may be placed in reasonable fear for their safety.”
To whom did that refer? she wanted to know.
To staff members who aren’t free to leave their jobs, Hexter said. In the past, some have said they felt threatened by student protesters.
Mike Sweeney, associate campus counsel, laid out one of the committee’s chief challenges under the law:
“You have the right to be in your residence hall, in your room, and not have somebody coming into that and giving speech that’s not welcome in your private space. But as you leave those spaces, as you go into the Quad, or you go into other public forums on campus, a person’s entitlement to not being disturbed is very low if not nonexistent — and the right to speak on matters of public concern is very high.”
Other situations are even dicier. Take deciding whether to step in if a protester shouts down a guest speaker, as has happened at UCD and other campuses, Hexter said.
“Some people would take the point of view that the organizers have the right to completely control the speech and stop the speech of anyone else that they have not authorized, and yet that seems extreme. So it’s a balancing act.”
A faculty member who did not identify herself described many of her colleagues as anxious about the policy, both by how compiling regulations might lead to them to be more strictly enforced and by the lack of specificity.
“If any of us had to sign off on something like this when we were allowed to join the university, we’d have been shaking in our boots, in terms of whether we could do the job we were actually hired to do,” she said.
While current administrators may interpret the policy as promised, she said, there’s no guarantee their successors will follow suit.
One student said she felt that the list of restrictions felt “threatening.”
“Public spaces — including sidewalks, lobbies, courtyards, hallways and other paths, thoroughfares and open areas — must be maintained to permit orderly and safe access and travel for pedestrians,” begins one line.
None of the restrictions are new, Hexter and Sweeney said. Rather, the committee cobbled together lines from existing policies. It did so partly as a way to bring them into better harmony, at the Academic Senate’s urging.
Unfortunately, Sweeney said, that resulted in wording that he compared to a Frankenstein-like assemblage of parts. Put together, it “looks alarming.”
One solution that he and Hexter offered: writing a preamble that more forcefully states the university’s commitment to free expression.
“(At) this institution, you just don’t get the constitutionally protected freedom of expression rights — we far exceed that,” Sweeney said after the forum. “This is a marketplace of ideas. We welcome controversial ideas. We actually protect those controversial ideas.
“These time, place and manner (regulations) are really at the request of the audience. Faculty want them — they don’t want bullhorns outside their classrooms. Researchers don’t want protests in their labs. The women’s center doesn’t want men’s rights groups blockading their front door. That’s what these are all about.”
Hexter told those in attendance, “There’s no desire to control any speech based on its content, apart from hate speech. None whatsoever.”
Still, Sartawi said she worried that the policy could be misused, silencing students with politically unpopular views — in her case, opposing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. ”That’s what I worry about — discriminatory enforcement that puts marginalized groups at a further disadvantage.”
A fifth-year civil engineering major from Punjab, India, Harafateh Sing Grewal, said UCD should pair more face-t0-face meetings between students and administrators with the policy. That would create “a safe place to express your views,” he said, “rather than going around burning trash cans.”
Grewa said he hoped for more “positivity and guidance” in the final document than he found in the draft.
“It never says, ‘You can express here.’ ”
Monday’s forum was the third of four scheduled. The last is set for 2 p.m. Friday at 2222 Lecture Hall in the Education Building, at the corner of X and 48th streets in Sacramento, across from the UCD Medical Center.
The committee also will take comments online until Oct. 31. To read the draft policy, or share opinions about it, see http://manuals.ucdavis.edu/200-75draft.htm.
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden