University of Texas-Austin And Some Students Choose Censorship Over More Speech
A college campus is a perfect place for more speech leading to social consequences. Lorenzo Garcia of the University of Texas-Austin Young Conservatives of Texas learned that quickly when he and his organization promoted a "catch an illegal immigrant" event at UT-Austin:
The "game" goes like this. On Wednesday, volunteers will walk around the UT campus with tags that say "illegal immigrant." If a UT student catches one of the bozos, they can bring them back for a $25 gift card.
Mr. Garcia, in common with people do do such things, says he's just trying to get a discussion started:
Lorenzo Garcia, chairman of UT's YCT chapter, said Wednesday's event is not intended to instill anger or promote prejudice, but instead to educate college students about a serious issue.
It's intended to “spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration and how if affects our everyday lives,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Garcia did start a discussion, though perhaps not the one he wanted. He and the Young Conservatives of Texas were subjected to widespread condemnation and ridicule both locally and nationally. Politicians — including conservative politicians — distanced themselves. Garcia thinks people are just mean:
He nonetheless took issue with the backlash he received on Monday and said he hoped the controversy would stir debate on the issue of immigration.
"I have been called an 'Uncle Tom.' I have received emails and comments via social media filled with obscenity," Garcia said in the statement. "The reactions of some who claim that YCT is creating a demeaning or degrading environment on campus have been truly disgraceful."
If the matter had stopped there, it would be a free speech success story: group engages in speech that others find offensive, others exercise their right to response speech, marketplace of ideas distributes social consequences for free expression.
But it didn't stop there. As the FIRE points out, threats of official censorship played a role.
It's completely fine for the administration of UT-Austin to say that Garcia and the YCT are being assholes and that UT-Austin doesn't share their views. As I've argued before that's the right way for a university to respond. But the UT-Austin administration both condemned the speech and ominously suggested that the speech violated the university's honor code, which can trigger discipline up to and including expulsion. As The FIRE points out, that's a threat of official retaliation against protected speech:
UT-Austin had no business making thinly-veiled (arguably, not veiled at all) threats against students planning to engage in political theater. Such threats have detrimental effects on the community’s willingness to debate, curtail the free exchange of ideas on campus, and seriously risk chilling protected speech.
In a statement, Garcia partially blamed a statement issued by UT President Bill Powers and Vice President of Diversity and Community Engagement Dr. Gregory Vincent for the cancellation. Garcia said, "I spoke with our chapter's members, and they are both concerned that the university will retaliate against them, and that the protest against the event could create a safety issue for our volunteers."
As the FIRE also points out, the reaction of some students is deeply disappointing. Some are demanding that UT-Austin revoke recognition of YCT for its speech:
While we, the undersigned, acknowledge and respect the university's role in allowing a diverse range of political organizations and demonstrations under the banner of "free speech", the University has an obligation to its students to roundly denounce harmful, alienating narratives and, in doing so, make the University a safe environment to historically oppressed groups. The YCT have routinely hidden behind the University's adherence to "free speech" as a means of attacking, intimidating, and degrading non-white students on campus. They have a documented history of attacking specific racial groups, playing on xenophobic hysteria, and being, as Faulkner said, "inhumane". Therefor, we formally request that the Dean of Students revoke the YCT's status as an officially registered student organization. Should the university fail revoke the YCT's status as an officially registered student organization, it will be making the implicit claim that not only are outlandishly racist events ignored by the tower, but that all students of color are fair targets for future "hunts".
I find Lorenzo Garcia and the YCT to be mundanely douchey. But their belabored trolling can be effectively addressed by the marketplace of ideas. Their proposed game has led to internet-infamy, an outpouring of support for the people they targeted, and a surge in discussion of political ideas opposed to them, and will probably impact their social interactions on campus for the foreseeable future. Speech has consequences.
But the sentiments of the students who want to invoke the power of the state to censor Garcia and the YCT are disturbing. Imagine a nation of voters and leaders like that — people who think that free expression is something to be put in scare quotes, who think that upsetting speech should be addressed by government mechanisms, who think that the purpose of the state is to make people feel good about themselves by stifling ugliness and stopping people from being "inhumane."
Lorenzo Garcia, YCT, and their ilk are losing. The response to their speech shows it. I'm not afraid of them. But I'm afraid of the America imagined by the anti-YCT petitioners. What powers will state administrators in that America crave, and what powers will those students — trained to think that they are entitled to be free of offense or upset — give them?
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