A half-century ago, student activists at the University of California clashed with administrators during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a series of events that would greatly expand free-speech rights of people at public colleges and universities.
Today, activists at UCLA are demanding that administrators punish some of their fellow students for expressive behavior that is clearly protected by the First Amendment.
In the past, free-speech clashes have turned on whether Americans have the right to criticize their own government during wartime, to march as neo-Nazis past the homes of Holocaust survivors, to submerge a crucifix in urine, or to burn the United States flag. All of those things, the courts have ruled, are protected speech.
What did UCLA students find so outrageous as to warrant the violation of the fundamental right to free expression? A “Kanye Western” theme party where students wore costumes that parodied rap superstar Kanye West and his celebrity wife, Kim Kardashian. For this, UC student activists would squander their inheritance.
Perhaps 18-to-22-year-olds can be forgiven for failing to appreciate what’s at stake in their activism. But UCLA administrators cannot be forgiven for complying with student demands to punish this free expression—a glaring illustration of their low-regard for the First Amendment, California law, and liberal ideals. There is nothing wrong with a black student being offended by a theme party, and attempts to articulate such grievances ought to be met with open-mindedness and compassion. And frats and sororities should be more sensitive to how their actions will be received.
But there is no “black point of view,” a prejudicial notion that is so easily refuted that it’s a wonder anyone invokes it. There are plenty of black people––a majority, I would wager––who understand better than many other Americans the importance of the First Amendment to the history of the civil-rights movement and the future of other civil-rights causes. As if to underscore that point, the Los Angeles Times highlighted an open letter sent to UCLA by Michael Meyers, president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. He said that “as an African American civil rights leader” he had to speak out. “We are increasingly alarmed—and distressed—by the failure of public university officials to support free speech and diversity of opinion on campus,” he wrote in the letter to UCLA’s chancellor. “Diversity of opinion surely includes the right of students to contest orthodoxy and to poke fun at popular culture and celebrities.”