UCLA Flails Amid Pro-Palestine Group's Planned Conference, While L.A.'s City Council Goes Full Stupid
from the inconveniently-free-speech dept
Those of you who geek out over trademark law like me may have seen the recent dust-up between UCLA and a group called National Students for Justice in Palestine this past week. I had intended on writing something up about the whole thing because of how blatantly stupid it was. The pro-Palestinian group has a chapter at UCLA and it is hosting a conference in the future, for which it put out some promotional materials that feature a bear flying a kite with the colors of the Palestinian flag and dared to mention that the conference was being held at UCLA. For this, UCLA lawyers sent a cease and desist to SJP, claiming that the way the promo material displayed the UCLA name and its use of bear imagery created confusion in the public suggesting that the school was affiliated with the conference.
UCLA argues that SJP’s “use of the ‘UCLA’ name” and use of “the UCLA mascot of the Bruin Bear in a logo/digital poster” effectively claims, suggests, or implies an “affiliation with” UCLA. The university says the group may state where the conference will be held (“at UCLA”) if the font size for the word “UCLA” is “no larger than the font used for the remainder of the communication.” Failing compliance, UCLA expressly threatens to cancel the event.
Not for the first time, a California university is wielding a pretty clearly unconstitutional law, one designed to give California universities sweeping powers to keep the public from mentioning school names, even if in an entirely accurate manner. No room is made for fair us, while schools have the authority under this state law to put in all kinds of silly restrictions, such as the font size restriction mentioned above.
What kept me from writing this up initially is that the school quickly signaled it would reversed course after SJP made minor changes to the promotional material. Oh, and after the ACLU got involved.
Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesman for UCLA told NBC News in an email on Wednesday “it was never about the bear all by itself” and that it appreciated the groups [sic] alteration to remove the UCLA name. The university, which threatened to cancel the conference, also said that the event would go on as scheduled.
“As you may have heard, some members of the Jewish community have been sharply critical of upcoming conference, demanding that UCLA move to cancel it,” the school said in statement provided by Tamberg. “As a public university, UCLA is legally bound to comply with the First Amendment, which protects everyone’s right to express their views, even those that are offensive and hateful or that the university opposes.”
Yes, it certainly does. Now, many have levied claims of hate speech against SJP. These claims, however you might agree or disagree with them, tend to be fairly laughable. If the best you can trot out is the following to claim a whole group is a hate group, you’re not going to meet any kind of First Amendment bar.
In an Oct. 11 letter to UCLA chancellor Gene Block, [State] Rep. Sherman argued that speech on the National SJP website “may very well constitute anti-Semitism” as defined by the State Department — a definition Sherman says was “recently adopted” by the Department of Education “for enforcement purposes.” Sherman’s letter highlights three particular examples contained in that definition, including “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” applying “double standards” to Israel by “requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” and “[d]rawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
None of that is hate speech, no matter what some silly State Department missive might suggest. Words matter, after all, and we can no more accept that the kind of political speech above, even if you disagree with it, is hate speech any more than we can condone the government crying terrorism anytime it’s convenient. It also seems obvious to me that if you replaced this pro-Palestinian group with a pro-Israel group, we never would have heard this story at all. Argue with that if you like, but you’re wrong.
And, yet, the L.A. City Council is now getting involved in the stupidest way possible, passing a resolution that first acknowledges UCLA’s need to adhere to free speech rights and then somehow calling for the cancellation of this conference entirely.
Add the City of Los Angeles to the government actors calling on UCLA to cancel the convention. While dubious California statutes and trademark concerns falter, the Los Angeles City Council has issued an internally incoherent resolution recognizing that the university has First Amendment obligations while demanding that the conference be canceled, First Amendment be damned.
The resolution, embedded below, was unanimously adopted with the “concurrence” of Mayor Eric Garcetti. The resolution cites UCLA’s “responsibility to allow freedom of speech,” but quickly skips past the pesky nuances of the First Amendment to demand that UCLA “cancel and ban” the conference because it would be “inappropriate” to host the conference “given the atmosphere in the country.” The resolution also concludes that there is “never a good time to have this type of event.”
Follow along with me in a resolution too dumb to make up: UCLA needs to protect free speech on campus, but it should cancel this conference given the current political climate and some tragedies that happened on the other side of the country, and, oh, also there will never, ever be a climate in which this conference should take place. The speed with which the city council and mayor got from “we acknowledge free speech rights” to “we can never allow these people those free speech rights” is breathtaking.
And fundamentally stupid, given that these are people in government we’re talking about. Frankly, the flailing UCLA administration that once attempted to trademark bully SJP for no good reason comes out looking way better than the City Council for Los Angeles. It’s also worth noting that for all the hand-wringing that takes place over the type of political speech allowed on campus by a certain segment of our population, it’s been complete crickets when it comes to defending a pro-Palestinian group’s rights.
One might nearly call that racist, were there not the worry that such a call would be labeled “hate speech.”