I have always prided myself on being someone who is not easily shaken, I have seen much violence throughout my life. I also pride myself as being a supporter of the police, and spent many years as a Police Benevolent Association panel attorney. However, on November 18th, I saw a police officer spray pepper spray into the faces of protestors at UC Davis who were doing nothing that would warrant such egregious conduct. They were sitting on the ground, arms interlaced posing no threat to a soul; an officer calmly walked in front of them and coated them with pepper spray. He, and his colleagues, were removing protestors who had been ordered to leave the campus by the Chancellor Linda Katehi. She should resign and the officers responsible should be fired.
The United States was founded upon the bedrock guarantee to individuals that they have the right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Such is the importance of this right that it was included as part of the first amendment to our constitution. For you see, before that, the subjects of the King had been unable to petition their government without what, in some cases, were the most severe of consequences.
People fought and died for the right to freely express their opinions, and to raise their grievances to their government, and the institutions thereof. It seems strange indeed that anyone should have to remind the Chancellor of a state institution that said institution is supported by tax dollars and is, therefore, publicly owned property where people must be allowed to speak freely. This is not a private business or home, this is the people's square and if one cannot speak there, where can they speak?
However, we must look even deeper than this just being public property, it is a university. Universities have, for centuries, been bastions of free expression and civil discourse. Why then must we see outrages like the calmly administered pepper spraying of students at an institution that should take pride in the desire of students to engage in discourse around societal problems?
You may completely disagree with what the protestors stand for. However, I have said many times that the greatest enemy the world has, in this day and age, is indifference, and these protestors were anything but indifferent. So again I say, you may well disagree with their viewpoint but you should respect their activism that remained peaceful. The exercise of free expression in a peaceful manner embodies the highest ideal of what it is to be an American.
Mark Yudof, President of the University of California System agrees: “Free speech is part of the DNA of this university, and non-violent protest has long been central to our history." He said this morning, when announcing a, much needed, review of police procedures on campuses throughout the system. I have a suggestion for some speech that President Yudof should engage in now: "Chancellor Katehi, you're fired!" But I digress!
I have heard the arguments that the protestors were making a mess and were obstructing the campus and had to be removed. Some have even argued that the police were correct because the protestors posed a threat. Those who argue that should look at this picture. Could someone please point out where the officer's fear was coming from?
Very well then though, let us assume, for a moment, that they just had to be removed then how does one go about it? Here is a novel suggestion for a seat of academic learning: how about, in return for an agreement to move, you invite in spokespeople for the protestors to come in and hold a series of debates and educational programs. Let voices be heard and let proponents and opponents of ideas “fight it out” through words. Was this ever discussed? I would doubt it was ever seriously discussed in any meaningful manner, regardless of what administrators are now saying. If it was, a rejection of any offer would still not be grounds to use pepper spray in advance of a forced removal.
The response to speech, most especially to that which poses no imminent threat, is not and should not be force. Unfortunately, however, we live in a society where many people have “selective constitution syndrome.” Yes that phrase is my invention, but I believe it describes those who seek all the protections the constitution has to offer when a message is one they agree with, yet they will eschew the same provisions when the message is one they disagree with.
I may well believe, and indeed have argued, that speech should not always be entirely free. If your words are intentional acts designed to harm another you may well, as the Westboro Baptist Church should have been, be required to pay damages or in some cases serve time for communicating threats or for soliciting a crime. However, I am not a proponent of prior restraint unless under the most dire of circumstances.
On Sunday Chancellor Katehi said "I am deeply saddened that this happened on our campus, and as chancellor, I take full responsibility for the incident." Very well then, Chancellor, fire the officer and all who sanctioned this and then step down. That is what a true leader who shoulders responsibility would do; so do it now!