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Christina Gagnier

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Suppressing First Amendment Rights at Our Nation's Laboratories: Police Action Against Students at the University of California

Posted: 11/19/11 03:19 PM ET

As a proud alumna of the University of California, Irvine, and former student government officer, I am appalled at the actions that have taken place against students at UC Berkeley and, most recently, UC Davis, over the last two weeks.

The University of California campuses have a long history with free speech, with UC Berkeley serving as a symbol of the student movement and Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Even the architecture of newer UC campuses, like UC Irvine, integrated in facets to account for the turbulence of the protests in the 1960's (There is a reason Aldrich Park is surrounded by Ring Road. It can be easily infiltrated from all sides if a protest occurs). The public university particularly invites itself to serve as a locus for the exercise of protest, peaceful and otherwise.

The First Amendment is not absolute. As such, many public institutions rely on the progeny of cases relating to the "time, place and manner" in which free speech can be exercised. Some schools have implemented "free speech zones" or in my time at UC Irvine, space had to be reserved from the Dean of Students to table on our campus. Amplification was also limited to particular times of the day, primarily the lunch hour. These measures are taken with the intent to avoid arguments over "prime" tabling spots on campus or competing events "out amplifying" one another.

Yet, this type of management can go too far, and at times, it did during my time at UC Irvine. Where this management of a "peaceful" campus environment has gone to the extreme has been at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, arresting, jostling, abusing, pepper spraying and generally criminalizing the exercise of speech on these campuses.

It cannot be a surprise students are protesting. Amongst one of the protest messages is the rise in fees at the University of California. These protests and awareness efforts have been going on since 2002, when the first major fee increases were put in place by the UC Regents during a Christmas break (I would know, I was there at UCLA when it happened). It was only a matter of time when students would come to the conclusion that enough was enough. Combine this with the other societal problems our nation is facing, and it is easy to deduce that these times are ripe for protest.

It is understandable that a bullhorn outside of Organic Chemistry would likely disturb class. But these actual laboratories are not the only laboratories at the university; in fact, our nation's universities are supposed to be laboratories in and of themselves, allowing students to explore their education and interests. Part of this exploration is developing ideology, exploring politics and coming to conclusions about the larger world. This can include a variety of endeavors in college, including becoming passionate about issues and exercising one's First Amendment rights as an expression of such.

The UC crest reads upon it, "Let there be light." The UC must allow space for its students to express their opinions and raise their voices. If they do not, there are plenty of alumni, lawyers particularly, willing to step in and help them do so.

 

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