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Your free speech is stupid, but it’s not illegal.

“I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend – to the death – your right to say it.”

By now, you’ve probably seen UCLA political science student Alexandra Wallace put her gigantic foot in her mouth with this racially insensitive little gem. Basically, Ms. Wallace is upset by one primary issue: people talking on their cell phones in the library. Unfortunately, replace the word “people” with “Asians” and throw in some stereotypes, and you have what has turned into a viral rant against a particular ethnic group.

Her two complaints (of “hordes” of Asians she doesn’t know):

  • Asian students import their families for the weekend to do laundry, buy groceries, and cook food.
  • Asian students talk on their cell phones in the library by saying, “Oh, ching chong ling long ting tong!”

According to Fall 2007 enrollment statistics, Asian students make up about 2/5 of the total enrollment of UCLA students. Caucasian students make up about 1/3 of the total enrollment of UCLA students. (I recognize this data is somewhat outdated, but I don’t anticipate much change from 2007 to 2011.)

So, Ms. Wallace likely sees at least one Asian student for every white student on campus. This is significantly higher than my alma mater, anecdotally speaking. (MTSU doesn’t track enrollment by race.)

Let’s break down her two complaints:

  1. Asian students bring their families to campus on weekends. In my experience, Asian families are more closely knit than say, for instance, white families. In many communities where a particular ethnic group establishes a community within a community (so-called, “Chinatowns” in U.S. metropolitan cities), there is a sense of community pride. Familial structures differ from one ethnic group to another.While Ms. Wallace’s comment may, on its face, seem ignorant, she may actually have a point. Certainly, she could have said it more intelligently, but what is incorrect about this observation?  Perhaps her incorrect observation is that Asian parents don’t teach their children to cook or clean or do laundry, but what student doesn’t take his or her laundry home on weekends for his or her parents to do? So perhaps that assessment should be about “students,” in general. Not just Asians.
  2. (a) Asian students talk on their cell phones in the library… Once again, I feel like Ms. Wallace would say this about any student; however, nearly every other student she sees on campus (statistically) is Asian. Most assuredly, white students and black students and Hispanic students are all talking on their cell phones at a given time in the library. Ms. Wallace simply expresses her frustration about the most predominant form of library cell phone chatter.(b) …by saying, “Oh, ching chong ling long ting tong!” This is where I have a problem with Ms. Wallace’s comments. You don’t understand the language, and that’s fine. I can’t speak Dutch or Russian or Mandarin Chinese, but I don’t fake it by making up the language. This, I think, is the climax and most “offensive” part of her video.

She uses a few words I wouldn’t have used: hordes, & “American manners.”

I made the point earlier: students from every ethnic background talk on their cell phones in the library. When I went to MTSU, black students, white students, Hispanic students, and Asian students all talked on their cell phones in the library. It’s annoying, I know. Especially during finals week, but it’s not exclusive to one ethnic group.

On stereotypes: There’s a reason stereotypes exist. Is it right to stereotype? Probably not. But she did.

So, the backlash has been horrendous. People want her expelled. Some people have threatened her life. She’s apologized profusely for her inappropriate rant. The campus paper has followed the story here. And Chancellor Gene Block issued a video statement here after The FIRE got involved.

Robert Shibley, of The FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), writes:

For the last couple of days, controversy has been buzzing about a YouTube video (now with more than 1.3 million views) from a college student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who chose to take to the Internet to complain about the behavior of Asian students in the UCLA library and elsewhere. The student, who has been identified as Alexandra Wallace, claims that the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA (UCLA’s undergraduate population is about 37 percent Asian and Pacific Islander) cause various annoyances like loudly talking on their cell phones in the library and having their extended families come over and do their chores for them.

If you watch the video, it is easy to see why Asian students in particular, and others as well, might find it offensivealthough in my opinion it is really pretty tame, as far as Internet rants go. The uproar it has caused at UCLA, however, is remarkable, and unfortunately displays the common impulse of college students and administrators to turn to official power to silence unpopular or controversial expression rather than relying on informal social sanction. It also displays the unfortunate tendency of many college students to ask for official punishment for those who air views they don’t like, or worse, to make threatseven death threatsagainst such people.

I strongly urge you to read the entire statement from The FIRE.

Shibley concludes, better than I could, with this:

Wallace has been criticized by thousands on the Internet. The chancellor of her university has condemned her in the strongest terms. At this point, she is undoubtedly something of a social pariah, and she seems to have gone “off the grid” at UCLA. You have to imagine that this will affect her career prospects. And all of this has happened without any official punishmentso far, anyway.

Is official punishment really going to do much more at this point? Does anyone really believe she will express these opinions again, if she even continues to hold them? The fact that in a free society it is not the government’s place to punish people for their protected expression does not mean that people are not held accountable for it, especially in the Internet age. We would be well advised to remember that fact before we call for official punishment for those who offend us.

Comments? Thoughts? I say we leave this poor girl alone.

2 comments

1 You Can Defend Alexandra Wallace’s Right to Free Speech Without Defending the Speech Itself « Student Activism { 03.16.11 at 8:26 am }

[...] Matthew Hurtt — who approvingly quotes Shibley — takes a slightly different tack, arguing in essence that if you take out the bigotry from Wallace’s rant, it’s really [...]

2 This Week in the News: UCLA Launches, Ends Harassment Investigation of 'Asians in the Library' YouTube Video - FIRE { 03.21.11 at 11:45 am }

[...] and Maya Dusenbery of Feministing among the many commenting on the situation. In addition, blogger Matthew Hurtt contributed his thoughts from the perspective of a recent college graduate. Elsewhere, Student [...]

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