A University of California free speech conference has turned into a microcosm of the free speech battles that regularly take place on U.S. college campuses after student activists show up at the event in Washington on Thursday and interrupted speakers to advocate for increases for graduate teaching assistants in the system.

The handful of undergraduate students representing COLA for All, a group pushing for a monthly cost-of-living adjustment of $ 1,412, or COLA, for teaching assistants on all UC campuses, are standing by. are sometimes held in front and interrupted speakers and panelists at # SpeechMatters2020, which was hosted by UC’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. The protesters, who study at the center of Washington’s university system, said it was ironic that the conference addressed how institutions should allow campus activists to speak out with respect while, at the same time, Conference organizers were moving protesters to the side of the stage to prevent their posters from blocking the view of members of the public of speakers on the stage.

Protesters were holding placards describing information about the California Teaching Assistants’ strike and calling on UC President Janet Napolitano, who was seated in the front row, to resign.

Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the center, told the students they could stay but couldn’t disrupt the speakers. She used the recommended language that UC Irvine includes in its policy to “prevent and respond to disruptions in real time”.

It was “appropriate” to attend a live demonstration at a conference focusing on the campus protests and their treatment, said Akshita Gandra, a UC Davis student who attended the conference and is UC National Center Valuing Open and Inclusive Conversation and Engagement recipient. Gandra said she understood protesters’ frustration over graduate student salaries, which has been a constant problem since arriving at the Davis campus four years ago.

“Maybe it was good to give them five minutes on the microphone to talk about the cause,” Gandra said of the protesters.

Protesters Missy Hart and Jazleez Jacobo accused conference leaders of silencing them.

“Why are you censoring me? Jacobo said he was driven to the side of the conference stage. “It goes hand in hand with the tactics the university uses to silence us. Yeah, everyone has access to freedom of expression, we have the right to demonstrate, but did we do it within the framework?

Protesters compared their treatment at the conference to clashes between police and protesters at UC Santa Cruz, such as earlier this month when 17 protesters on campus were arrested for illegal assembly and non-dispersal. Graduate teaching assistants have been protesting and striking since December, demanding a pay rise to help them cope with the high cost of living in California.

UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara graduate students joined the strike on Thursday – labeled a “wildcat” strike because it was not approved by United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union representing 19,000 student workers in the UC system. UC Santa Cruz graduate students participating in the strike have refused to submit their grades for the fall 2019 term, and UC Davis graduate students will follow suit for the winter term, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Jacobo said the strike, which is now spreading to other UC campuses, will have a ripple effect on undergraduates, some of whom have not received their fall grades and are at risk of have their classes canceled.

“As undergraduates, we are not protected by anything,” Jacobo said. “So when I can’t take my classes or someone else can’t continue their education… they’re not going to take that into account. “

Hart and Jacobo said they and others were frustrated by Napolitano’s refusal to engage with them at the conference, which Jacobo called a “spectacle.”

Administrators facing protests on their campuses “are navigating dangerous waters,” Deutchman said in an interview before the conference began. She said she sympathizes with institutional leaders who struggle to balance the rights of students to speak out and protect the rights of students who feel wronged by certain types of speech.

“I have a lot of admiration for them, not just because they are the ones who are sometimes criticized, but sometimes they are forced to defend someone’s right to come to campus,” Deutchman said.

Napolitano did not address or recognize the protesters who remained silent and held up signs during his opening speech at the start of the conference. But in an interview the day before the conference, she discussed some of the challenges university administrators face when scheduled events and speakers spark controversy.

“Sometimes the protest activity takes the form of stopping speech,” Napolitano said. “It’s a tough problem for university administrators – are you bringing all the students up to the student conduct charge?” Are you trying to make arrests? Do you apologize and move on? It is a decision-making framework that university rectors must go through.

At the time of the conference’s final panel, in which Napolitano and others were scheduled to discuss the “executive’s perspectives on free speech on campus,” Deutchman announced that the conference was over time and that the panel was canceled. Protesters said they planned to use the panel as an opportunity to confront Napolitano about the increases for teaching assistants.

“Protests and participation are not always easy, and they can often reshape our programs, as they have done today,” Deutchman said after the conference. “But they remain of crucial importance for the proper functioning of our democracy, and today we had the opportunity to see it in action.”


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