California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Letter to Chancellor Gillman of UCI re protest on campus 18 May



July 13, 2016

Chancellor Howard Gillman

Office of the Chancellor

510 Aldrich Hall

Irvine, CA 92697-1900


Dear Chancellor Gilman,

The California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 academics from different California institutions of higher education focused on protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression, is writing to express its deep concern about your administration’s response to the protest that was organized by several UCI student groups on your campus on May 18, 2016. We join our colleagues at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) to bring to your attention the critical importance of protecting the academic freedom and first amendment rights of all the student groups involved in this protest and call on you to correct the seeming discriminatory treatment of one of the student groups involved in the May 18 protest.

Your statement to the UCI community on May 19, 2016, asserts that the actions of student protestors at the showing of a documentary on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had “crossed the line of civility.” We are concerned about the use of the word “civility”, especially in relation to its historical use or misuse in subjugating indigenous people and people of color in this country and beyond. How would one measure “civility” and according to which standards? And more importantly, does this mean that “uncivil” speech and the language of dissent is unprotected speech? Moreover, dissent is not the same as “uncivil” speech.  And “uncivil” speech is not the same as hate speech or violence.  Some might be made to feel uncomfortable by dissent but the university is precisely the place that should encourage debate, dissent and discussion of controversial matters.

It is also of great concern that your statement was made prior to a comprehensive and impartial investigation of this incident. As it was attested in a letter to you dated June 7, 2016, from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), whose chapter members had served as non-partisan volunteers and legal observers at the May 18th event,  “allegations by outside groups to the effect that the protesting students threatened attendees, blocked exits and otherwise engaged in threatening and dangerous behavior, were baseless.”  The detailed field notes from the National Lawyers Guild observers therefore suggest that your initial conclusions, reached less than 24 hours after the event and without any investigation, require a public reassessment.

We respect the university’s right to conduct a full, fair and impartial investigation into this incident. However, we are troubled by the fact that members of only one of the student groups involved in the protest, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), were singled out for disciplinary proceedings while several other student groups, including the local Jewish Voice for Peace and Black Lives Matter, participated with the SJP students in voicing their objections.  This raises the possibility that the SJP group has been singled out in a selective and discriminatory manner. We also question your administration’s decision to refer this incident along with the names of SJP-affiliated students to the Orange County District Attorney’s office for investigation and possible criminal prosecution. Again, this selective prosecution, instead of an independent internal investigation, further points to a discriminatory treatment of SJP students. We are deeply troubled that a potential criminalization of constitutionally protected peaceful protest activity will threaten the first amendment rights of all UCI students and have a chilling effect on dissenting voices.

As members of the academic community, we are shocked by the treatment that the students have received because of their participation in a campus protest activity.  We feel that universities must uphold and defend the principles of academic freedom and serve as sanctuaries for the free expression of ideas and opinions, however controversial. We recognize the rights of those who organized the screening of the documentary on May 18, 2016, and expect you to recognize the rights of the students who chose to engage in peaceful protest at the screening. University administrators should not be swayed by external interest groups and undermine the vigorous exchange that is essential to the preservation of free speech, the protection of academic freedom and the mission of our institutions of higher education.

As NLG has correctly pointed out in its letter “your public comments constitute a threat to the students’ due process rights and serve to sanction hostility against pro-Palestine and Black Lives Matter students, who are routinely subject to unprecedented levels of harassment and intimidation across the country, including on UC campuses.” We therefore call on you to retract your remarks to the campus community that the protesting students “crossed the line of civility.” We further call on you to publicly affirm that all students regardless of race, religion, or political beliefs, may exercise the right to protest and enjoy the right to a fair and impartial investigation when accused of serious infractions.  Finally, we urge you to retract the referral to the Orange County District Attorney’s office to investigate this incident, and we call on you to refrain from referring such incidents to law enforcement authorities in the future.

We look forward to your response,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Contact Persons:

Sondra Hale, Professor Emerita

Department of Anthropology and Gender Studies

University of California, Los Angeles

Ahlam Muhtaseb

Professor of Communication Studies
Graduate Coordinator

Interim Director, Center for Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies
California State University, San Bernardino

Lisa Rofel

Professor of Anthropology

Director, Center for Emerging Worlds

University of California, Santa Cruz

Vida Samiian

Professor of Linguistics

Director, Middle East Studies Program

Dean Emerita, College of Arts and Humanities

California State University Fresno

**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.


July 13, 2016 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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