LA JOLLA, CA—Violating constitutional protections of free expression and due process, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has charged a student publication, The Koala, with "disruption" for taking photographs at a meeting of a student group, the Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicanos de Aztlan (MEChA). When a public trial was held, the administration quashed it in order to hold a new—and secret—trial.
"Administrators at this public institution, though bound by the Constitution, consider First Amendment rights to be nothing more than privileges granted at their own will and whim," said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. "This is an unmistakable attempt to censor officially disfavored views. The same university that in 1995 declared MEChA’s call for the murder of U.S. immigration officers to be ‘protected by the first amendment of the U.S. constitution’ now prosecutes a student publication’s parody of MEChA as ‘disruptive.’"
The Koala is a satiric student publication that regularly criticizes and parodies public figures and events. Administrators have frequently criticized The Koala. Last year, UCSD Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Joseph W. Watson stated, "We condemn The Koala‘s abuse of the Constitutional guarantees of free expression and disfavor their unconscionable behavior." The Koala‘s "unconscionable behavior" was its exercise of constitutionally protected satire.
On November 19, 2001, Koala staff members attended an open meeting of MEChA. A student photographer, who was not a member of The Koala, later submitted his photographs from the meeting to the paper, which used them in a criticism and parody of MEChA’s outspoken president, Ernesto Martinez. In February 2002, three months after the meeting, the University accused the two Koala students who attended the MEChA meeting and The Koala itself of violating the Student Code’s prohibition of "obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures, or other UCSD or University activities." The publication faces dissolution by the University.
On May 22, 2002, the day of the hearing, FIRE urgently wrote to UCSD Chancellor Robert C. Dynes, observing, "The very weakness of the ‘disruption’ charge indicates that UCSD has an outside motive for prosecuting The Koala, and it appears all but certain that this motive is The Koala‘s controversial content." FIRE called on Chancellor Dynes to cancel the hearing and warned him that punishing a student publication for content would "spell the end of robust discourse at UCSD." On June 10, Director of Student Policy and Judicial Affairs Nicholas S. Aguilar wrote to FIRE, claiming simply that UCSD’s actions against The Koala are not based on the content of the publication.
In its letter, FIRE reminded UCSD of a case in 1995 involving MEChA’s own publication, Voz Fronteriza, when the University in general, and Vice Chancellor Watson in particular, issued an unequivocal defense of the right to free expression. In May of 1995, Voz Fronteriza published an editorial on the death of a Latino Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agent, entitled "Death of a Migra Pig." The MEChA editorial termed the dead agent a "traitor…to his race," stated, "We’re glad this pig died, he deserved to die," and argued, "All the Migra pigs should be killed, every single one…the only good one is a dead one…The time to fight back is now. It is time to organize an anti-Migra patrol…It is to [sic] bad that more Migra pigs didn’t die with him."
In response to widespread media attention, public condemnation, and demands for censorship, UCSD vigorously affirmed MEChA’s right to express its opinions, however painful or offensive. Vice Chancellor Watson, so censorious in 2002, explained in 1995 to the media that, "like most student newspapers, they make an effort to achieve some shock value." In a letter to U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter, Watson asserted that the MEChA students had "the right to publish their views without adverse administrative action….Student newspapers are protected by the first amendment of the U.S. constitution." That same day, the UCSD administration issued a public statement defending MEChA even from condemnation: "The University is legally prohibited from censuring the content of student publications."
On May 22, 2002, the campus Judicial Board held its hearing, which was covered by the student media. The Koala members were optimistic about the chances of a favorable verdict. Two days later, Nicholas S. Aguilar nullified the proceedings before a decision could be rendered, stating that the hearing had to be held behind closed doors.
Despite strong objections from the daily campus newspaper, The UCSD Guardian, and other student publications, the second hearing was conducted in secrecy on June 5, 2002. A final decision from UCSD’s Joseph W. Watson is expected this week.
Kors noted, "Students at UCSD live under an unbearable double standard. It is, sadly, too late to save The Koala from the ordeal of a secret inquisition. Nevertheless, UCSD can still correct some of the damage that has been done by rejecting the charges against The Koala. Vice Chancellor Watson ‘disfavors’ The Koala, but he declared Voz Fronteriza‘s call for murder to be wholly protected expression. It is time for a single constitutional standard, and some decency, at UCSD."
In its defense of The Koala and other UCSD publications, FIRE has been joined by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the defense of free press rights on college campuses.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of freedom of expression, individual rights, due process rights, legal equality, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts at UCSD, and elsewhere, can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
James E. Holst, General Counsel, UC Board of Regents: 510-987-9800; email@example.com
Robert C. Dynes, Chancellor, UCSD: 858-534-3135; firstname.lastname@example.org
Joseph W. Watson, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs: 858-534-4370; email@example.com
Nicholas S. Aguilar, Director of Student Policy and Judicial Affairs: 858-534-6225; firstname.lastname@example.org
George Liddle, Editor-in-Chief, The Koala: 858-274-0015; email@example.com
Alison Norris, Editor-in-Chief, The UCSD Guardian: 858-534-6580; firstname.lastname@example.org