UC Silent When Prof Trashes Free Speech

“I may be a thief, but you’re a terrorist,” quoth University of California, Santa Barbara feminist studies professor Mireille Miller-Young. It was March 4. The professor had just grabbed an anti-abortion poster from the Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust at the campus free speech area. The professor didn’t like a poster of an aborted fetus; I don’t blame her. But she had no right to take the poster.

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Thrin Short, 16, and her sister Joan, 21, pursued the professor and her student entourage. They also recorded what ensued. Miller-Young got physical. The Shorts called the police. In August, Miller-Young apologized and pleaded no contest to theft and battery charges. A judge sentenced her to three years of probation, 108 hours of community service and 10 hours of anger management counseling.

What has the university done about this professor’s illegal and outrageous attempt to silence dissent? Was there even an investigation? “It’s a personnel matter that we’re handling internally,” spokesman George Foulsham answered.

Katie Short, mother of Joan and Thrin and now their attorney, filed a lawsuit against UC and the professor last week. How much do the plaintiffs want? Short, who is a lawyer with the Life Legal Defense Foundation, would not say. But she did tell me the suit is more about the university than it is about one professor.

As far as Short knows, UCSB did not punish Miller-Young. The lawsuit contends that the university never contacted the plaintiffs, which would suggest there was no investigation. Nor did the university apologize. Michael D. Young, vice chancellor for student affairs, sent an email to students in March to remind them, “The price we pay to speak our own minds is allowing others to speak theirs, regardless of how oppositional their views are to our own.” Young also wrote that UCSB was being tested by “outsiders coming into our midst to provoke us, to taunt us and attempt to turn us against one another.”

That is, the university would not comment on the professor after she was found guilty, but early on it did offer up an opinion on Miller-Young’s victims.

Short tells me she wants the university “to take some responsibility” for what happened. The university should send a clear message that the professor’s behavior was not only illegal but also anti-intellectual. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley blogged that it was disturbing to watch Miller-Young “encouraging her students to silence opposing views by stealing a sign. It is the very antithesis of the academic mission which is based first and foremost on free speech and association — and civility.”

Last month, UC Berkeley students disinvited comedian Bill Maher from a commencement speech after a rump student group launched a petition that asked the administration to “protect” students from Maher’s speech. (The administration intervened, and the invitation stands.) A UCSB petition called on the university to re-evaluate “rules and regulations that allow outside community members to so heavily trigger and target students and faculty” on campus. In the moment of truth, Miller-Young equated a provocative poster with terrorism. What the petitioners and the professor apparently believe is that when challenged, they cannot defend their own ideas.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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