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Right to Protest Protected on UC Campuses
Yesterday, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights dismissed three complaints that had been filed against the University of California, on the grounds that the complaints were based on constitutionally protected speech. The complaints had alleged that the activities of students critical of Israel’s policies had created a hostile environment for Jewish students at the Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine campuses.
August 28, 2013
By Alan Schlosser
Yesterday, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights dismissed (see pdf) three complaints that had been filed against the University of California, on the grounds that the complaints were based on constitutionally protected speech. The complaints had alleged that the activities of students critical of Israel’s policies had created a hostile environment for Jewish students at the Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine campuses. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California became involved because the complaint raised two important, and sometimes conflicting, rights: the right of students to attend university free from a pervasive hostile environment based on their race or religion, and the right of students to speak out strongly on campus about controversial political issues.
The ACLU-NC determined that these complaints were based on the constitutionally protected speech activities of students who were expressing their strong opposition to the policies of the state of Israel, speech that lies at the heart of the First Amendment. In correspondence with the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education, the ACLU asserted that the government cannot abridge the expression of political viewpoints, even if controversial and even if some students find the speech upsetting or offensive, especially at a public university which should be a true market place of ideas.
“First Amendment protections are most important when speakers take controversial or unpopular positions that might arouse strong feelings, passions and hostility. There are no sacred cows when it comes to the First Amendment’s protections for political messages or viewpoints.” said Alan Schlosser, ACLU-NC Legal Director.
The Office of Civil Rights dismissed all three complaints on the grounds that the “mere expression of views, words, symbols or thought that a student finds personally offensive” is not sufficient to violate federal civil rights laws. This important decision sends a message to universities and colleges around the country: that the campus must continue to serve its traditional role as a place where student activists can speak out strongly on controversial issues without facing discipline or arrest.
Alan Schlosser is the Legal Director of the ACLU of Northern California. Follow @ACLU_NorCal on Twitter.
A complaint against UC Santa Cruz, alleging that the campus created a hostile environment for Jewish students, has been dismissed by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The investigation, opened in March 2011, focused on two events on campus where speakers were critical of Israeli policies, on two other talks that had been planned but never took place, and on several incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti.
After interviewing the complainant and other members of the UCSC community and conducting an extensive review of UCSC documents related to the complaint, OCR closed the entire complaint. The campus was informed that OCR had concluded its investigation in a letter received on August 19.
In its letter to the campus, OCR said it determined that the events described in the complaint "do not constitute actionable harassment" as alleged. OCR's investigation also determined that the campus "took prompt action to investigate ... and to remove the graffiti."
"This campus values the free and open expression of ideas, and we diligently safeguard our students' civil rights," UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal said. "We are, therefore, pleased that these allegations have been thoroughly investigated and dismissed."