Op-Ed

UC Irvine chancellor: Stop the Internet rage over flag flap

The ability to resist calls to salute the flag is a feature of a free society

On March 8, I criticized an earlier decision by the UC Irvine student council to ban all national flags from the lobby of its offices, and I expressed support for the student government executive council that acted quickly to veto the effort. Before, during and after this short dispute, the U.S. flag continued to fly on campus.

Within hours of my statement, half the students who had originally voted in favor of the flag ban posted a public apology on the student government Facebook page, saying, “We meant no ill will towards our nation nor its flag, and our school truly does not deserve the image placed on it in the public sphere.” They also announced that they had no intention of overriding the veto.

The Los Angeles Times, in an Opinion L.A. blog post, summarized the situation this way: “You had a handful of UCI students making a decision that had the potential to rile alumni and taxpayers across the state, only to have cooler heads prevail. End of story, right?”

Nope.

What came next was far worse than the original ban: the Internet rage machine. On Facebook comments, Twitter feeds and blog posts we have witnessed vile, hateful, racist and threatening comments against members of the UCI community. We are able to delete offensive and threatening posts from accounts we control, but those are only a small fraction of the disturbing messages.

We have worked with Internet service providers, asking them to enforce their terms of service, but they don't always see things as we see them. The university is told, for example, that a mock wanted poster with the photographs of our students and the message “Make Them Famous” is not considered a threat (and so will not be removed) unless someone superimposes targets onto the heads of the students (that image was removed). Our work with these providers continues.

By March 9, phone calls coming into the campus were so threatening that we were forced to cancel planned meetings of the student government, send alerts to the campus and increase the police presence.

Whatever you think of the short-lived original effort, it is time now to stop the madness. Those who have gone out of their way to draw public attention to this matter have an obligation to condemn all efforts at harassment and threats of violence directed against our students and other members of our community.

The irony, of course, is that many of those who are attacking the university are expressing views that are contrary to the very commitment to freedom that the flag represents.

During World War II, in the midst of the country's struggle against fascism, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individuals could not be forced to salute the American flag.

Justice Robert Jackson, the former U.S. attorney general who would later oversee the prosecution of the Nuremberg defendants, explained that “we can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes.” The case presented the court with the opportunity to compose one of the most famous and revered lines in the canon of American constitutional law:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Years later, in an opinion joined by one of the most conservative justices of the modern era, Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court declared that “the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects” include “the conviction that our toleration of criticism … is a sign and source of our strength.... The way to preserve the flag's special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong.”

The flag has never stopped flying at UCI. The student government has addressed the question of what happens in that small lobby area. And there will continue to be people — on college campuses and throughout the country — who resist calls to salute or respect the flag. This is a feature of university life and a measure of a free society. On behalf of the flag, we must stand up against those who will use harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against these expressions.

Howard Gillman is chancellor of UC Irvine.

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