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Professor needs a refresher course on the First Amendment
March 23, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Displaying a rather alarming disregard for the First Amendment and free speech rights, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara allegedly stole an anti-abortion protester's sign and scratched the teenager when she tried to snatch it back. Mireille Miller-Young, the professor in question, is being charged with misdemeanor theft, battery and vandalism and is due in court on April 4, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.
The incident happened when Miller-Young and some students encountered the anti-abortion protesters, 21-year-old Joan Short and her 16-year-old sister, Thrin Short, in a "free speech zone" on the University of Santa Barbara campus on March 4. Their protest was organized by a group called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. The young women were displaying bloody and graphic posters of aborted fetuses, which upset Miller-Young, who is a few months pregnant and was about to undergo a test to determine if the fetus has Down Syndrome. Miller-Young and the students demanded that the posters be taken down and the protesters refused.
According to the police incident report obtained by the Santa Barbara Independent, which can be seen at http://www.independent.com/news/2014/mar/18/ucsb-police-department-releases-professor-protesto/, Miller-Young told the police officer she felt "triggered" by the imagery and acknowledged that she had engaged in a physical struggle with the Shorts. "I'm stronger, so I was able to take the poster," Miller-Young said, according to the incident report. She also acknowledged that she cut the poster to pieces with a pair of scissors once she and the students returned to her office, which she described as a"safe space." Miller-Young apparently compared herself to a "conscientious objector" and thought she was justified in her actions because she thought the anti-abortion protesters were engaging in "hate speech." Miller-Young acknowledged that she should not have taken the poster and said she would pay for the poster, even though she would hate doing so.
The Shorts posted a cell phone video of the incident on YouTube, which can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLemX9QtUa4 Joan Short also wrote a blog entry giving her account of the incident at http://www.survivors.la/blog/2014/3/9/a-considerable-loss-to-our-operation The Short sisters have also given their side of the incident on FOX News at http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/03/22/university-california-santa-barbara-feminist-professor-charged-in-confrontation/ and remain determined to protest against abortion.
Miller-Young has her sympathizers. Some of the more outrageous defenses in "solidarity with" Miller-Young can be found at The Feminist Wire, as in this piece at http://thefeministwire.com/2014/03/miller-young-toward-decriminalization/ The most rational of Miller-Young's defenders is probably Chris Newfield, blogging at http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2014/03/abortion-in-culture-wars-some-effects.html I agree with Newfield that it might be more productive for the charges to be withdrawn and for Miller-Young to invite the Short sisters to speak to one of her classes and engage in a civilized dialogue. Still, it's also pretty clear that Miller-Young is in the wrong here. There is no right not to be offended and all indications are that the anti-abortion protesters had a right to be on campus that day and to do what they were doing. Miller-Young and her students had every right to protest the protesters and to jeer and to heckle them, but they had no right to steal property or to lay hands on the protesters. What I find amazing is that Miller-Young doesn't seem to realize any of that and seems to actually want to put a limit on our sacred right to freedom of speech. That same right would protect her should she choose to protest at some upcoming pro-life march.
As all the charges are misdemeanors, I doubt the consequences will be all that serious for Miller-Young, though I hope she is at least sanctioned by the university for her alleged actions. If the university lets this slide, it will have a chilling effect on free speech rights at universities and set an appalling example for students.
The incident at the University of California-Santa Barbara is on the one hand a local story about a minor scuffle at a protest that got a little heated. But I worry that it also says something about the prevailing attitudes among certain academics towards free speech and the "wrong kind of dissent." This kind of attitude seems to be common at colleges all across the country.
I was dismayed, though not surprised, by the response from the administration at the University of California-Santa Barbara to this incident. Someone has leaked a memo written last week by its Vice Chancellor, Michael Young, in which he advises students and professors not to engage with protesters on campus and talks about his belief and support for free speech. However, he avoids criticism of the alleged assault by one of his employees on a minor in this campus memo, which was obtained by The National Review and can be found at http://www.nationalreview.com/article/373957/ucsb-smears-pro-lifers-after-professors-attack-pro-life-student-alec-torres Young refers to the anti-abortion protesters as "evangelical types" and "true believers, self-proclaimed prophets, and provocateurs." Apparently he's received quite a few complaints about these protesters. "As a consequence of interactions with the more extreme of our visitors, students have expressed outrage, pain, embarrassment, fear, hurt, and feelings of harassment," Young wrote. "Moreover, I have received requests that the campus prohibit the peddling of "fear," "hate," "intolerance," and "discord" here at UCSB."
Oh I just bet he has he has, judging by some of the nonsense people have written in support of Miller-Young. If you were to go by some of the commentary, you'd assume that Miller-Young and her students were the ones who were physically assaulted and harassed by the protesters. Instead, judging by the account of the anti-abortion protesters, Miller-Young initiated contact, heckled the protesters, started a chant demanding that the protesters tear down the signs, picked up one sign and made off with it. Then, Miller-Young allegedly pushed and left long, red scratches on the arms of the 16-year-old girl who followed her and tried to take back her property. How many private employers would continue to employ someone who physically assaulted a kid while on the job?
Here is a student petition in support of Miller-Young, calling for the administration to "re-evaluate rules and regulations that allow outside community members to so heavily trigger and target students and faculty on this campus" and sending their "love and solidarity to Miller-Young and other womyn of color faculty members that have not been fiercely supported by this University." Note the spelling of "womyn," an affectation I mistakenly thought had gone by the wayside in the 1990s. The petition can be found at: https://www.change.org/petitions/ucsb-students-staff-faculty-community-administration-and-chancellor-yang-support-and-be-in-solidarity-with-ucsb-professor-miller-young
As this is a public university that receives state tax dollars, I have my doubts that their efforts to ban the anti-abortion protesters would be either legal or successful. Even containing speech or expression to a "free speech" area seems legally problematic. Surely the Constitution trumps campus policy in a public place. Miller-Young deserves a reprimand from her employer if these allegations turn out to be true, not to be "fiercely supported" in her wrong-headed actions. Unfortunately, I suspect she will soon be the toast of certain lecture circuits and, if convicted and given unsupervised probation, will probably end up looking even more like the victim of this incident while the anti-abortion protesters are vilified.
Unfortunately, a lot of the online reaction regarding this incident has resulted in irrelevant and often racist commentary on Miller-Young's personal appearance and her race. I don't think it is ever right or fair to attack someone for what he or she looks like. There are certainly enough other things to criticize Miller-Young for.
Catherine Short, the mother of Joan and Thrin Short and a lawyer representing the Life Legal Defense Foundation, also called for an end to the personal attacks on Miller-Young in a statement released Thursday. "Unfortunately, along with the expressions of support we have received, we have become aware of individuals engaging in ad hominem attacks against Miller-Young," wrote Catherine Short. "We do not condone this, and we ask that such attacks stop. As my daughters tell people they meet on campuses, let’s keep to the topic and have a reasonable, productive conversation. What Miller-Young did, what she has said and written, what she teaches and publishes, UCSB’s response, and appropriate sanctions for her actions have a place in the conversation. Comments on her personal appearance and threats against her person do not." Catherine Short's full statement can be found at this link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/214910381/Legal-Director-of-the-Life-Legal-Defense-Foundation-statement-for-the-Short-family-in-response-to-assault-on-her-pro-life-daughters-by-UC-Santa-Barba
Catherine Short, in an interview with The National Catholic Register today, raises another interesting point. Why haven't the students who allegedly helped Miller-Young steal and destroy the poster been identified? Short said she would be willing to let the university handle any discipline meted out to the students and her daughters would be satisfied with an apology from the students, but apparently none has been forthcoming. The university that is supposedly investigating this incident has not contacted the Short family or interviewed Joan or Thrin Short about what happened that day. It sure sounds like the university administration wants to sweep this all under the rug. Catherine Short gave some valuable advice to students who plan to carry out similar protests: “I hope they have video cameras everywhere,” she said. “In this day and age, it is critical. They won’t believe it if they don’t see it.” The complete interview can be found at http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/culture-of-life-and-culture-of-abortion-collide-on-california-campus/
Miller-Young is scheduled to make an initial court appearance in Santa Barbara Superior Court District 8 on Friday, but according to Catherine Short, the case is likely to go to trial in about six months. Meanwhile, Miller-Young's friends have began raising money to pay her mounting legal bills, including attorney's fees and possible restitution. One such appeal can be found online at http://www.stephaniegilmorephd.com/donate-to-mireille-miller-youngs-legal-fees.html Another of her friends is trying to raise the defense that the protest sign didn't really belong to the protesters after all because they had brought them into a free speech zone to advocate a political point. "But what does it mean if political signs become a part of a university’s discursive terrain – extending its capabilities as well as those of anti-abortionists? Does it mean the placards belong to the university alongside those who made and display them? And do they come to belong also to the university’s members – the students and workers who form the university’s human parts? Indeed, might they come to not belong to anyone at all?" wrote Davina Cooper at http://davinascooper.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/improper-attachments-or-who-do-anti-abortion-posters-belong-to/
That sounds like the sort of argument that Mireille Miller-Young's attorney might try at the upcoming trial. Good luck with that.
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