“Asians in the Library” and What We Learned at UCSD Last Year   Leave a comment


UPDATE: UCLA has decided not to punish or further investigate the student. A victory for free speech, and a smart decision by UCLA not to have to expensively defend an illegal speech code/code of conduct in court. Nonetheless, Alexandra Wallace has “voluntarily” chosen to withdraw from UCLA.

I would suggest watching it twice, and suppressing your gut outrage before forming a final opinion:

It’s ignorant, racist, and it was a stupid, stupid thing to do. We can be unanimous in this understanding. No excuses, it’s the type a thing only an immature, self-absorbed, closed-minded moron would do. She’s probably stressed from finals and frustrated with everything a young person goes through, but man, is it stupid. However, I don’t think it’s grounds for formal punishment or the mound of incivility heaved her way on the internet.

Read through the comments on that YouTube video. Every curse word imaginable, sexual degradation, vicious personal attacks, threats and advocation of violence including death and sexual violence. Not to mention her personal contact information, full name, email, phone number, and home address revealed for people who have threatened violence against her. She didn’t do anything illegal, and the correct way to fight intolerant speech is with more speech, but responding with illegal threats of violence is worse than what she did, and it’s actually criminal.

She did a stupid, ugly thing. But a significant amount of the responses on the internet are more ugly and uncivil. By no means does that excuse her abhorrent behavior, that responders did worse, but it escalates the situation and offers no reasonable solutions. What she perceives as poor cell phone etiquette, unreasonable family visits, and rude library behavior as perpetrated exclusively by “hoards” of Asians is offensive to many. I was offended in particular by her flippant treatment of the Japan tsunami, but was far more offended by commenters sexually degrading her and wishing violence upon her and even her family. It’s not helpful and it’s not acceptable to respond this way — no discerning mind will judge Asians based on her ignorant perceptions, but a storm of despicable comments by Asians themselves do far more damage to the community’s image. Fighting ignorance with more intense ignorance doesn’t represent UCLA or Asians any better than what she did.

It’s an emotional response. When your culture, a fundamental element of your identity, is insulted unfairly and inaccurately. To be angry, to want to inflict pain. That’s understandable. I felt it. But it needs to be mastered in favor of civility. Many responders showed this civility, criticizing her ignorance, pointing out the social and professional damage she’s caused herself. But not personal attacks or threats. And I think it’s the majority that feels this way, that she offended people, demonstrated poor character, and will pay a social price. But the voices of malice and violence are the ones that will be remembered, even if in the minority. She will be able to say she received personal attacks, death threats, threats to her family, and whatever defense team she assembles will deploy that message mercilessly, and it will be undeniable. It will reflect the ugliness individuals with personal responsibility lashed out with after her ugly act. This is a shame. The focus should only be on fighting intolerance, not the viciousness, perhaps even criminal actions, of her victims.

As for formal discipline, I saw it suggested several times on YouTube and Facebook, but do not think it can be done legally. The First Amendment gives citizens powerful protection over free speech. Racist speech is not illegal. Death threats are, and it’s incredibly irresponsible to say she deserved it or that enraged responders are not to be held accountable for their emotional outbursts. If the campus police get involved in this issue, it will be over the threats she received, not over the things she said in the video. Again, this makes something that was sad for Asians (a girl’s ignorance), even sadder (members of our community acting so uncivilized perhaps to the point of criminality).

While the First Amendment protects free speech, UCLA may have a speech code in place that makes racist language punishable by sanction, suspension, or even expulsion. I saw several calls for her expulsion on the internet. I think this is an emotional response that disrespects the First Amendment and is ignorant of the law. First, technicalities. If UCLA enforces a speech code, the administration’s jurisdictional limits come into question. In the video, the girl appears to be in a private off-campus apartment, presumably using privately provided internet. It’s uncertain whether that’s prosecutable under UCLA  jurisdiction. In the case of UCSD and the so-called “Compton Cookout,” I believe the fact that the event took place off campus in a private apartment was a factor in not punishing the students involved. This case is similar in that respect.

If UCLA thinks it does have jurisdiction and decides to take action against the student within the confines of UCLA, some sort of reprimand up through expulsion, it rubs up against the First Amendment. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, a long shot to make it to the Supreme Court. Freedom of speech is strongly protected — the Court just ruled in favor of protecting protesters picketing military funerals, causing the families of fallen heroes great emotional distress. It seems likely they’d rule in favor of a girl being non-violently racist on YouTube. UCLA can look to UCSD and how they handled the “Geisel noose” incident for legal advice. The “noose” suspect was suspended, having meant no ill and committing no crime, and I’m sure UCSD’s on the hook for an expensive lawsuit because of it. I think speech codes on public university campuses are unconstitutional and that silencing free speech defies the principles of what the university claims to stand for. I’d be very surprised if UCLA punishes the student.

Her punishment will be a social one. Didn’t make very many friends, did she? Going to have to suffer that consequence. But don’t think she won’t be waiting to sue into oblivion anyone who lays a finger on her or performs what can legally be interpreted as harassment. It’s not unreasonable to initially think it’s unfair that she can be so abhorrently offensive, but people wanting to take their revenge in ways they find intuitive could be punished. There is a separation between thought-crime and physical crime. She’s allowed to think whatever she wants and say it, no matter how ignorant and stupid. There’s civil ways to say that and let her know it. We’re only responsible for our own personal behavior, but individuals lashing out with vicious attacks and threats do no one any favors.

I think she’ll learn her lesson. I don’t think she meant for it to be a big deal, just stressed from finals and venting, letting her inexplicable ignorance show through in a moment of frustration. It does affect how some people will view UCLA students. She has political science classes and doesn’t know how to be culturally tolerant. Those classes don’t seem very effective or well-taught, I don’t want to be a political science major there. And who let her in in the first place? It’s a bit of a black eye. But recoverable. Disgusting responses to a disgusting incident will make that recovery slower and less complete. So. Hate her words, hate her attitude, denounce and discredit each of her stereotypes. Do it passionately, do it creatively, do it loudly and visibly. But do it civilly, because it reflects poorer on Asians than anything she said to respond the way I’ve seen some people respond.

And don’t bother demanding free tutoring for all Asians. That never works.

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