A First Amendment organization has chimed in on the University of California system’s recent “guidance” forbidding use of terms like “Chinese virus,” saying officials need to rethink their approach.
Do not use terms such as “Chinese Virus” or other terms which cast either intentional or unintentional projections of hatred toward Asian communities, and do not allow the use of these terms by others. Refer to the virus as either “COVID-19” or “coronavirus” in both oral and written communications.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes the edict is “framed as ‘guidance,’ suggesting the directives are merely aspirational.” The problem is the words “do not,” which appear to indicate a mandate.
What will happen to those who don’t adhere to the “guidelines,” FIRE asks. Will students be punished? Will professors be passed over for tenure?
The UC System is a public university system bound by the First Amendment. As a government actor, it may not prohibit protected speech, no matter its intention in doing so. Statements like these directives impermissibly chill protected expression, as students and faculty may self-censor for fear of crossing a line they cannot see.
UC may certainly take a “more speech” approach to addressing inclusivity on its campus during this unprecedented moment in history. It may educate students on the effects of discourse surrounding the novel coronavirus, as other government actors have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, for example, both provide guidance on the best practices for disease-naming, as well as information about why COVID-19 was so named. Both organizations explain why they have concluded that avoiding associating a disease with its nation of origin is an important part of ensuring broader public health. UC and other public universities that now confront similar questions may do the same. They may not, however, appear to ban speech outright.
We’ve already seen paroxysms of self-righteous indignation regarding this very topic at UC schools and elsewhere. At UC Berkeley, for example, a student used the Mandarin term for “Wuhan Virus” as a screen name during a virtual lecture … and was immediately reported for doing so.
At UC-Davis, a student took to the pages of the school newspaper to denounce as “xenophobic” a graffiti message criticizing the Chinese government. Similarly, at the University of Wisconsin Madison, anti-Chinese government chalkings were panned as “racist” and “xenophobic.”
And coronavirus-based free speech inanity isn’t confined to things China-related. A professor at Brown University had to apologize for her “presumption of heterosexuality” after saying “There are enough [virus] tests to test women in labor, but not their husbands.”