UCSB Bias Response Team Speaks Volumes About Free Speech

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Jason Garshfield

As UCSB students were hunkering down for finals last week, the new Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Margaret Klawunn, sent two emails to the UCSB community. Although some students more concerned with keeping their GPAs up may have overlooked these emails, I believe they merit further attention, as they contain language which could potentially be threatening to an open academic environment at our school.

In the first email, sent on Dec. 3, Vice Chancellor Klawunn announced the creation of a Bias Response Team, which will be instructed “to review incidents on campus and in Isla Vista, to examine trends, and to make recommendations on proactive efforts to educate our community.”

This description gives us only the sketchiest picture of how the Bias Response Team will operate and absolutely no information on how broad its jurisdiction will be. “Bias” is an extremely vague label, potentially spanning everything from actual race-based violence to mildly rude “microaggressions.” Let me remind you: the UC system currently keeps an official list of microaggresions that includes asking, “Where are you from or where were you born?” and saying that “America is a melting pot” or “the land of opportunity.” We have received absolutely no assurance that this Bias Response Team will be operating within parameters that prevent it from violating students’ rights to free expression. Nor have we been given any assurance that students or faculty accused of “bias” will receive a due process.

Let me remind you: the UC system currently keeps an official list of microaggresions that includes asking, “Where are you from or where were you born?” and saying that “America is a melting pot” or “the land of opportunity.”

Will the Bias Response Team’s “proactive efforts to educate our community” include hours of forced sensitivity training for anyone caught praising America too loudly? Will the Bias Response Team force the French department to stop teaching beginner students how to say “D’où êtes vous?” (“Where are you from?”)? Vice Chancellor Klawunn has given us no assurance that it will not.

If bias in the UCSB community is really such a problem that merits the creation of a whole new level of bureaucracy, I hope that the Bias Response Team will at least include a few advocates of students’ rights, especially those familiar with free expression and due process.

Furthermore, Vice Chancellor Klawunn encouraged students to report “hate crimes or bias incidents” (emphasis mine) to the UC Police Department and the Office of Judicial Affairs. Once again, the email offers no specific definition of bias. This poorly worded directive could encourage a police state on the UCSB campus, where anyone who makes a slightly offensive statement is intimidated by the UCPD and then forced through a long and arduous Judicial Affairs process. It is especially worrisome when read in tandem with another statement released by the UCSB administration last summer, which encouraged students to report similarly vague acts of “disrespect” and “intolerance.”

Vice Chancellor Klawunn’s second email was sent only a day later, on Dec. 4. This email addressed the existence of a Facebook page called “UCSB White Student Union,” an apparently satirical page which claims to be a “s@fe space” for “People of Europe@n descent,” demanding the creation of a “Hernan Cortes housing commons” and a “Napoleon Bonaparte Resource Center” for white students as well as the banning of European-themed (and Charlie Sheen-themed) parties — an apparent parody of demands made by groups of minority students at colleges and universities across America.

It is important to note that, despite its inflammatory rhetoric, the UCSB White Student Union has never at any time threatened violence against nonwhite students, or even made any overtly hateful statements. Even the event page for the “White Student Walk Out” to occur on Jan. 19 only encourages students to gather in front of the Student Resource Building and “respectfully voice our complaints.” However, the mere existence of this page was apparently so traumatic to some students that Vice Chancellor Klawunn felt the need to include a link to Counseling and Psychological Services in her email (a move I find infantilizing), and to say that “we denounce this attempt to undermine the culture of inclusivity that we strive to attain” and “reject any efforts that undermine our sense of community and common purpose.”

I find this ironic because in her first email, Vice Chancellor Klawunn told students that “we want you to know that we are committed to building upon and continuing dialogues about equity, diversity, and social justice.” Well, this is exactly what UCSB White Student Union has done. They have taken Vice Chancellor Klawunn at her word and made a contribution to the dialogue about equity, diversity, and social justice — a politically incorrect contribution, but a contribution nonetheless. And she has responded by casting aspersions on them and attacking their motives and character.

They have taken Vice Chancellor Klawunn at her word and made a contribution to the dialogue about equity, diversity, and social justice — a politically incorrect contribution, but a contribution nonetheless.

How are students supposed to feel empowered to share their honest opinions on social issues, when they run the risk of being accused of “undermin(ing) our culture of inclusivity”? A true commitment to dialogue would involve a willingness to engage even the most objectionable opinions. It sounds more like UCSB wants a monologue on these social issues, not a dialogue. Perhaps the Dec. 3 email should have said that “we are committed to building upon and continuing dialogues about equity, diversity, and social justice, so long as no one says anything really offensive.”

In fact, far from encouraging vigorous and open dialogue, these emails cast a chilling effect over free expression at our university. The Dec. 4 email says that UCSB “immediately began to investigate” the page, and at a recent meeting Vice Chancellor Klawunn admitted that UCSB unsuccessfully attempted to track down the IP address of the page administrators. To see UCSB take such an interest in a private Facebook page is disturbing, to say the least. Although the second email affirms its support of free expression, it does absolutely nothing to denounce the students who have called for the page to be removed.
Will UCSB start watching my Facebook posts, or yours, next? What about controversial opinion pieces such as this one? Will this, perhaps, be a task given to the Bias Response Team?

Vice Chancellor Klawunn’s December 4 email says that UCSB insisted that UCSB White Student Union remove the official University logo and seal from their page. While UCSB certainly has the right to request that its copyrighted materials not be used, I sincerely doubt that a less offensive Facebook page would have merited the same reaction. To me, this suggests that UCSB is waiting, poised to leap at the first chance it gets to silence controversial speech — not a good omen at all.

The email also says that “it is possible to express different points of view and debate issues without being divisive and causing distress and upset in the community.” This may or may not be true, but it is not for the University to condemn anyone who expresses themselves in such a way. Using this metric would essentially give anyone in our community a blank check to silence any form of expression that they did not like, simply by manifesting enough “distress and upset.” This is known in free speech parlance as a “heckler’s veto.”

Shocking forms of speech have been used many times throughout history to support some very worthy causes. Today at UCSB, many left-wing student groups use rhetoric that some people might find distressing and upsetting, in order to stimulate discussion about social causes they support. The Black Student Union has released demands that in many ways mirror the ones made by the White Student Union page, including the funding of special programs for black students, and the renaming of North Hall into Malcolm X Hall. Students for Justice in Palestine regularly erects an “apartheid wall” covered with strongly-worded anti-Israel rhetoric. These groups have never been condemned by the school.

Vice Chancellor Klawunn has only been at UCSB for a few months. These emails are not a promising start to her tenure here, but she still has plenty of time to change her legacy. In years to come, I hope Margaret Klawunn will be remembered as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs who stood against the tide of censorship and restored free expression at UCSB. In this endeavor, I wish her the best of luck.