[The following letter was issued by Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Armenian Student Association at UCLA on 17 May 2014 in response to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block`s recent letter to the UCLA campus. In that letter, the chancellor defended the practice of student government representives accepting in-kind gifts from external groups (e.g., the Anti-Defamation League) with a proven record of Islamaphobic and ant-Arab speech. Chancellor Block`s original letter is reproduced below for refeerence.]
Response to Chancellor Gene D. Block`s "Message on the Importance of Civil Discourse"
We, the undersigned student groups, have taken it upon ourselves to respond directly to the email you recently sent out to the entirety of the campus community. While we appreciate your recognition that drafting and distributing the “Joint Statement on USAC Ethics” falls within the realm of free-speech, we take issue with the fact that the rest of the email is effectively an indictment of the statement that promotes an inaccurate impression of its message and intent.
You write that “just because speech is constitutionally protected doesn`t mean that it is wise, fair or productive,” and then go on to add that you are “troubled that the pledge sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others,” and that the statement “can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion." These claims imply that the point of the statement was to delegitimize groups based on national and/or religious identification, or to attack students who have a certain stance on political issues. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The ethics statement is about holding student leaders accountable. It is about calling on them to become cognizant of their role as representatives for the general student body by disallowing their neutrality to be compromised by gifts and allegiances to off-campus groups, and to realize that their affiliation with the organizations in question is hurtful to various campus communities.
We are pleased that your message showed sensitivity to the experiences of students on campus, but we cannot help but note the silence in regards to the anti-Arab and Islamophobic speech being promoted by the very groups in question.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Islamophobia is hateful and discriminatory, and it is beyond disheartening for us to have to defend our attempts to remind student leaders why their connection to organizations that host Islamophobic speakers and promote and distribute Islamophobic material marginalizes individuals of UCLA’s Muslim community. Additionally, these groups’ ties to anti-Armenian organizations, active roles in lobbying against US recognition of the Armenian genocide, as well as various other human rights violations alienate Afrikan, Armenian and Palestinian students.
Furthermore, we are saddened to see that despite the efforts of groups such as SJP and MSA to raise concerns about the hate-speech, threats and intimidation they have experienced on campus, it is only protecting the integrity of off-campus lobbying groups that warrants this type of intervention. This latest development seems the most recent manifestation of the very issue to which we have been attempting to call attention: that off-campus groups with a particular ideological agenda are exerting an unhealthy influence on campus affairs.
If you truly believe that discourse should remain civil, inclusive, and respectful even when disagreements are present, then surely you will take these concerns into account and realize why it is problematic to issue a message upholding the rights of student leaders to receive benefits from organizations tied to Islamophobia and other practices that marginalize various campus communities. If you truly believe that everyone’s belief, opinion and identity should be respected, then you will understand why it is disingenuous to admonish others for their rightful criticism of student leaders’ connections to such groups and remain silent about these groups’ discriminatory practices. If you truly believe in keeping our campus community as open and democratic as possible, you will understand why holding our student leaders accountable for their actions by ensuring their conduct remains unswayed by the influence of off-campus organizations is integral to the preservation of a just and transparent student government.
Finally, while your message claimed that the ethics statement singled out particular views and groups, in fact the statement called on student leaders not to accept free or sponsored trips from any organizations that marginalize campus communities, whether the organization discriminates on the basis of race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental ability, marital status, financial status or social status, or engage in any other form of systematic prejudiced oppression. We would think this is a sentiment anyone honestly dedicated to fair and equal treatment should be able to get behind, and we find it unfortunate that your email presents the statement as an attempt to discriminate against others when its purpose was to promote the diminishment of discrimination by demanding more tolerant and respectful practices on behalf of our student government.
Thank you for your time.
Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA
Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA
Afrikan Student Union at UCLA
Black Pre-Law Association at UCLA
United Arab Society
Armenian Student Association
Muslim Students Association
MeChA de UCLA
Letter from UCLA Chancellor Gene Block Sent to UCLA Students on 16 May 2014
Subject: A Message from Chancellor Block on the Importance of Civil Discourse
To the Campus Community:
Over the past week, many of our students, as well as friends off campus, have communicated their concerns over a pledge that candidates for our student government were asked to sign prior to last week’s elections. Heated exchanges have occurred over the issue and have unfortunately left some feeling disrespected or targeted because of their views or affiliations. Certain news reports and other communications through social media have also mischaracterized aspects of the situation, fueling an unhealthy discourse that is harmful to our campus climate. Robust debate is vital to democratic learning, but it can never exclude common sense, civility and tolerance for those who disagree.
First, let me set the record straight on the facts, as we understand them: Students active in student government, who have varying views on Israel–Palestine issues, have participated in the recent past in free trips to the Middle East organized by Jewish groups. Prior to the recent student elections, some student groups asked candidates to sign a pledge promising not to go on such trips. The pledge was not sanctioned, proposed or required by our current student government or the university administration. No one was barred from running for office, participating in the election or serving on the council as a result of not signing the pledge. Some students signed, others did not. Both signatories and non-signatories won offices. The decision to circulate this pledge and the choice to sign it or not fall squarely within the realm of free speech, and free speech is sacrosanct to any university campus.
Second, just because speech is constitutionally protected doesn’t mean that it is wise, fair or productive. I am troubled that the pledge sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others. I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion. I condemn any remarks on social media or elsewhere that are disrespectful or hurtful.
Political speech that stigmatizes or casts aspersions on individuals or particular groups does not promote healthy debate but debases it by trying to intimidate individuals and groups. It does not strengthen the bonds of mutual respect and engagement that sustain a diverse community able to manage differences; it weakens them. If we shut out perspectives, if we silence voices, if we allow innuendo to substitute for reasoned exchange of ideas, if we listen only to those who already share our assumptions, truth gets lost, our intellectual climate is impoverished and our community is diminished.
Passionate debate is to be expected in a civil society, especially in a heated election season, but I am personally concerned any time people feel disrespected, intimidated or unfairly singled out because of their beliefs. Important issues will generate passions, even discomfort — that cannot be avoided. But if the political debate on campus gets more shrill and less nuanced, if hostility replaces empathy, if we see each other as enemies rather than as colleagues trying to figure out how to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, we will all be the lesser for it. It is possible to express strong opinions without belittling others.
Today I am calling on our Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs to explore how to better foster political dialogue that is respectful, productive and focused on understanding rather than division. UCLA faculty, students and staff deserve an open environment that encourages vigorous debate without disparagement.
Gene D. Block