July 26 2002

Commentary

It’s a Question of Free Speech:

when is it good for one and then not for another?

By Victor Menaldo

Sometimes in the United States, social principles come to loggerheads. For instance, the quintessentially American theme of progress and efficiency versus traditional values and beliefs connotes a familiar rivalry, which recreates cyclically. Similarly, many groups see free speech in stark contradistinction to tolerance, diversity and concord.

In America, when controversy swells around so-called competing principles, the zealous fanatics of these “antithetical” principles seep out of the woodwork. Unfortunately this reflex affords the public with scant practical expedience. It reveals no new insights into these controversies. Take the recent free speech versus tolerance and equality brouhaha at UCSD. It involves MEChA (“Movimiento Estudiantial Chicanos de Aztlan”), the militant yet quixotic Hispanic student group. No stranger to free speech controversies, MEChA gained notoriety for an immigrant-directed exhortation to intensify the “killing of Hispanic-American INS agents” in 1995. This bizarre battle pitch appeared, after a border patrol agent was murdered in 1995, in its mouthpiece: “La Voz Fronteriza”.

Expectedly, MEChA was attacked by groups of all political stripes. And the UCSD administration chose, at the time, to toe the First Amendment line. It vowed to fully support MEChA’s right to free expression. In the most recent case, however, MEChA finds itself on the flip side of this Janus-faced issue. It cried foul when a campus humor-magazine, THE KOALA, purportedly defamed Ernesto Martinez, the leader of the UCSD chapter. Last fall, the ignominious KOALA ran, in what has now become the magazine’s perennial motif, a mocking and berating parody of the boisterous MEChA leader. The distasteful lampoon, unsurprisingly and justifiably, affronted Martinez, as well as his supporters, the UCSD administration and students.

In rushing to his aid, the UCSD administration attempted, in one fell swoop, to shut the KOALA down. Vice Chancellor Joseph Watson, among others, denounced the KOALA. He alluded to the magazine’s infamous track record, its stereotyped caricatures of minorities and women, when he chastised the student-run publication for “…abuse of the Constitutional guarantees of free expression and (UCSD) disfavor(s) their unconscionable behavior.” The administration has, for time immemorial, espied the KOALA with a jaundiced eye. It was no surprise then when UCSD seized upon the fact that, in preparation for the controversial parody, a photographer affiliated with the KOALA had snapped an impromptu picture of Martinez, without his permission, at a MEChA gathering. Thus, to buttress Martinez’s claim of harassment against the KOALA, UCSD called upon its ambiguous “Principles of Community”, which state that “free speech is allowed within the bounds of courtesy, sensitivity, confidentiality and respect”. UCSD formally accused the KOALA of “disruption”.

Nicholas Aguilar, USCD’s Director of Student Policy and Judicial Affairs, the chancellor of UCSD, Robert Dynes, and Vice Chancellor Joseph Watson, all lauded Martinez for his courage. They apologized on behalf of the University and urged him to seek legal restitution under the auspices of the student-run “Judicial Board” at UCSD. However First Amendment stalwarts demurred and struck back. A free speech advocacy group, FIRE, claimed that UCSD’s position was hypocritical: UCSD defended the right to free speech when it involved campus groups it endorsed, yet clamped down on speech that emanated from groups it disfavored.

In a letter to UCSD, FIRE claimed that the administration sought to castigate the magazine based on content it deemed unseemly, but aware that they were disallowed from suppressing speech on a public campus, they relied instead on the ostensible “harassment” claim. In pressing their claim of chicanery against the administration, The KOALA and FIRE identified politics, in contradistinction to principles of respect, as the sole motivation behind the charge of “disruption” against the KOALA. Although MEChA and UCSD had dug in their heels to conduct this fight, they relented in the face of mounting national coverage.

On June 10th of this year, the KOALA was fully exonerated by UCSD’s Judicial Board.

Advocates of multiculturalism and diversity, alongside the UCSD administration, a surprisingly zealous ally, settled into a political pole opposite supporters of the First Amendment, who unreservedly came to the aid of the KOALA. Unfortunately, when they divvied themselves into antagonistic camps, they augured protracted division and contention. Each side was too polarized from the start and hypersensitive. An “either-or” situation evolved, the ideal platform for a zero sum game: either you are with diversity and tolerance, namely MEChA and minority groups of similar ilk, or you are on the side of free speech. In the case of the latter, you can end up supporting even the most vile and caustic excuse for journalistic expression and stand up for the KOALA, which seeks to elicit cheap humor in the most crude and distasteful ways. If you stand up for tolerance, you unwittingly support ulterior UCSD machinations and fall prey to its desire to stifle a renegade campus group that it disdains. Ultimately, UCSD used Martinez to get to the KOALA. This is the real folly and what should be the crux of the issue. Not the free speech versus diversity and tolerance bit that is a lot more sexy and polemical.

In truth, the KOALA is a harmless diversion from serious issues. It is a stupid and sophomoric attempt by students to get a rise out of the stodgy professors and students who take themselves too seriously. Thus, it should not be dealt with on serious terms used to deal with true threats to equality and tolerance. By the same token, Martinez was justifiably vexed by what he perceived to be a vitriolic and discriminatory attack. Any rational student, or adult, would have reacted similarly. However, he overreacted and in collusion with the UCSD administration, he over-stretched his influence as a student leader. And UCSD abused its authority and power. Predictably, in the evolving maelstrom, the media beckoned ideological contradictions between competing camps and fomented dissent and disagreement. Unsurprisingly, incessant antagonists took the bait. Like peacocks in mating season, they delighted in the ostentatious display of their embellished differences and down-played the search for practical and plausible solutions.

The minions of civil liberty and some conservatives of similar ilk, concerned more with American traditionalism than with the First Amendment took to the airwaves. Fittingly, they appeared on the FOX NEWS CHANNEL to protest the abrogation of rights and to defend, “at any cost”, free speech and due process. Contrarily, the mouthpieces of multiculturalism squared off against their opponents, reproaching what they identified as hate speech and intolerance. These pugnacious differences starkly underscore America’s complex and somewhat fragile collective identity, which are consigned, for common folk, to America’s intellectual underbelly. However, the “contradictions” of basic principles gradually gnaw at America’s collective identity and do threaten broader ideological balkanization. This begs the question. Can, and should, one point to a single compendium of American values, a group of principles that a consensus of Americans would countenance, practice and defend without hesitation?

Unfortunately, the public seems oblivious to the fact that erstwhile ideological antagonists are always itching for a fight; any fight whatsoever. They salivate at the chance to get bloodied in pugilistic debates laden with invective and recriminations, against their ideological bête noire. Thus, they will use any pretext, any stratagem and even the most oblique adumbration of a controversy about principles, to get their addictive fix of political polemics. Unfortunately, the recent histrionics emanating from the MEChA/UCSD versus KOALA case have cannibalized upon common sense, genuine possibilities for compromise and community consensus. The one-dimensional articulation of the issue has ill-suited average, more moderate, members of the community. This includes the Hispanic community and the community at large.

Most Americans do not see every problem, every social issue, as a battle of principles in an internecine war, in which American civilization hangs in the balance. In reality, Hispanics and Anglos alike, support both free speech and tolerance. By extension, they would look askance at the proposition that these principles are mutually exclusive antagonists, that you can only have one at a time. In essence, USCD should have scolded the KOALA, albeit more mildly, for their inane caricature of Martinez. But they should have stopped short of seeking to shake the KOALA off its isolated perch on the campus tree. For his part, Martinez should grow some thicker skin. He has conscientiously placed himself in the limelight and should learn to discriminate between playfully offensive parodies and genuine racist attacks. If the KOALA parody was intended solely as a racial slight and a calumny of Martinez’ character, it was a rather mild, clumsy and ridiculous one. Thus, it should not have been given much attention. As one Hispanic educator so succinctly put it recently: “give a skilled clown the spotlight and he will get everyone in the audience to join him (in his antics)…he will turn everyone else into clowns.” Two cheers for that refreshing and poignant view.

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