“Because freedom of speech.”
This was the rationale of a student chalker the night before Transfer Triton Day, when asked why they were scrawling implicitly-threatening messages across UCSD. The First Amendment protects hateful speech like the chalkings, but does that mean the First Amendment justifies such actions?
Does Freedom of Speech justify being an asshole?
Speech supposedly legitimized by the First Amendment continues to provoke heated debate at UCSD and on college campuses across the United States. From the chalkings, to radical Christian protesters on Library Walk; from the graphic pro-life group arguing with students on Library Walk, to the most recent ACLU Court Case on behalf of The Koala against officers of AS UCSD and Chancellor Khosla for defunding media publications, the need for clarity and brevity in our conversation has never been greater.
“We pride ourself on lack of censorship, allowing our student writers to publish whatever they want, expressing themselves as fully as possible, as long as they’re funny,” said Gabe Cohen, outgoing editor-in-chief of The Koala, a controversial newspaper at UCSD that publishes highly offensive, racist, xenophobic content, justified as “humor.” According to Cohen, The Koala “use[s] humor to draw light to issues that affect all of us.”
The Koala may have been legally justified in publishing any content of their choosing — but just because the racist, xenophobic, and hateful content is legal does not make it acceptable, nor does it make it satire.
“Good humor is directed upwards, not down,” said Adam Whitman, the outgoing president of UCSD’s improv comedy group FOOSH. “You make fun of Donald Trump, not a single mother who works two jobs. Humor shouldn’t be used to kick people who are down already, it should be used to elevate them.”
The Koala diverts attention from actual problems by instead publishing outlandish and emotionally-provocative, attention-seeking content — a sad child in the back of the room, whining for the teacher’s attention during their time-out. Discussion on issues of racism and xenophobia already existed on campus before you decided to cause a fuss. You’re in college now. Do you actually intend to become a productive member of society or just sit stubbornly in the back of Mrs. Kensington’s second grade classroom, clamoring for your undeserved gold star?
Exclusionary humor targeting vulnerable minority groups and sensitive issues, like The Koala’s “jokes” about rape, the Compton Cookout, the Haitian earthquake, and this week’s UCLA shooting are never “okay.” It is completely feasible to promote relevant campus discourse and make people laugh without acting like a Gabe Cohen, the self-described “dictator who decides what is funny and what isn’t.”
At least Cohen makes it clear that picking up a copy of The Koala is “always a choice.” The Triton Day chalkings, however, were done in a very public fashion, glaringly visible to students outside their own residence halls and apartments. The chalkings deliberately took place the night before both Triton Day and Transfer Triton Day. They were blatantly malicious and threatening, clearly intended to dissuade incoming minority students from attending UCSD. Yes, the chalkings were protected by Freedom of Speech. But that doesn’t vindicate the perpetrators from the distress they have caused and the hostile environment they have created.
Right or wrong, when someone relishes in their own self-absorption and chooses to disregard the integrity of others by bullying and attacking, they are only pulling the ground out from underneath themselves. A productive conversation on any controversial issue can only ensue when reciprocal respect has been assured within the dialogue. Speech can be loud and robust, even filled with deeply personal or cultural differences, but respect, empathy, and consideration are not optional elements of discourse.
Many students have called on the administration to respond by banning groups which have inflicted emotional and psychological damage on students. The reality is, the UCSD administration’s power in these cases is restricted by the protections of free speech on a public college campus. There is something to be said about the sub-par quality and breadth of statements from the administration, but nonetheless, the strongest response in calling out spiteful and distressing content must come from our student body and individuals that represent it.
In the last year, our campus has taken important steps to appropriately respond as a community. When hateful pro-life protestors came to campus with two-story tall graphic posters, students came out to peacefully protest in front of the signage. When xenophobic chalkers targeted incoming minority students, student activists spent the early hours of the night scrubbing off the messages of hate and responded with #ChalkBack, protests and support from within the community. And when radical Christian groups preached hate and hell fire, UCSD’s own Christian students responded with free hugs and loving messages; students came together regardless of race and religion to turn the hate into positivity with frisbee games and PRIDE flags, with free condoms and dancing on Library Walk.
Yes, freedom of speech gives you the liberty to express your racist, sexist, hateful, or bigoted messages, but it is absolutely not a validation for infringing upon other human beings’ rights to physical and emotional safety, especially in a diverse place of learning and residence, such as a college campus.
Our constitutional right to free speech is a crucial part of our democracy. It is an empowering right which gives us, as students and as journalists, the ability to inspire meaningful change. But justifying hate and attacking others contradicts the spirit of our college and our community.
To those who think the chalkings and The Koala are protected speech — we don’t dispute that. However, to those who actively seek to attack fellow students with prejudice, we hope you don’t dispute the fact that your actions reflect your outdated and exclusionary mindset, authentic pride in ignorance, and inability to empathize with other human beings.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of The Triton Editorial Board. If you’d like to respond directly, please do so here. If you’d like to comment on another issue affecting the UCSD or UC community, you may also so here.