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When students' controversial words go viral, what is the university's role?

A YouTube video by a UCLA student and an email circulated among USC fraternity members quickly spread off campus, illustrating a challenge for school administrations.

March 27, 2011|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • "Social media is teaching us, habituating us, to respond to speech with more speech," said Greg Lukianoff, an advocate for free expression on campus. Above, an image from the UCLA student's video.
"Social media is teaching us, habituating us, to respond to speech… (YouTube )

The Web never stops and it never forgets.

On a recent Friday night, a UCLA student posted a video on YouTube. The young woman made the video, in which she complained about and mocked Asian students at UCLA, the day after the Japan earthquake. She took down the clip within hours of posting it. She was too late. By then it was being reposted and remixed, taking on a life of its own.

By that Sunday, it had come full circle. UCLA officials watching the situation unfold noticed considerable surges in traffic on the university's Facebook and YouTube profiles, said Phil Hampton, a UCLA spokesman. People inside and outside the campus community were urging the university to do something.

The incident this month — and the way the university responded — illustrates the challenge that universities face now that the kinds of comments once scrawled on bathroom walls or passed around in class can be blasted out online, instantaneously, for the world to see.

Larry D. Roper, vice provost for student affairs at Oregon State University, said the long reach of social media has turned issues that university officials would once have handled face to face into something broader and more difficult to manage.

"It's not something we can control," Roper said. "It's a world unto itself."

As a result, he said, "the reaction is no longer a local one. You act locally and influence globally."

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media outlets have been embraced by higher education partly because they help create a feeling of connection across a far-flung university community. But the ability to connect so easily also indulges impulsiveness.

Since the advent of social media — and email before that — there have been numerous cases of questionable videos or inappropriate posts causing a stir at colleges, said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that advocates for freedom of expression on college campuses.

Around the same time the UCLA student's video went viral, an email that suggested crudely explicit terms for rating women circulated among USC fraternity members, then jumped to the blogosphere.

The incidents at USC and UCLA hewed to a pattern that Lukianoff said he has seen many times: Someone says something, it spreads, and the university responds.

After the email at USC began circulating, Michael L. Jackson, the university's vice president for student affairs, sent an open letter to the campus community saying that officials were "appalled" by its language, which he said contradicted the school's values.

UCLA went a step further in responding to the anti-Asian video on its campus. Chancellor Gene Block sat down in the broadcast studio that the university recently constructed and made a statement condemning the student's video. Block's response was then posted on YouTube, the same place the controversy began.

By the time the chancellor's statement was posted, it was just one in a slew of videos on the subject. Some were light-hearted, others angry; some were politically correct, others as crude as the first. Hampton said it was crucial for UCLA's administration to inject its voice directly into the conversation.

The same dissemination occurred with the email at USC: The feminist blog Jezebel found out about it and launched a conversation driven mostly by an anonymous commenter who claimed to have a connection to the student who might have written the email.

The discourse took some unsavory or frenzied turns on the Web. Back at the schools, however, a more measured discussion bloomed in which offended students discussed opportunities for change. At UCLA, Asian student groups said the video highlighted a need for increased diversity requirements in the curriculum.

At USC, students created petitions and held meetings to discuss troubling issues raised by the email. Jackson, in an emailed statement, said the university encourages "dialogue rather than discipline" in such situations.

"Social media is teaching us, habituating us, to respond to speech with more speech," Lukianoff said.

Although there was a push for the universities to discipline or even expel the students behind the controversies, schools are often limited in what they can do. Lukianoff said that however reprehensible a student's words might be, their speech is protected by the First Amendment.

But he said that those who cause a ruckus often "suffer the consequences naturally of what they say." Alexandra Wallace, the UCLA student who made the video, has withdrawn from the university, citing threats.

Oregon State's Roper said that staying enrolled might have helped Wallace learn from the situation. "When a student does something like this, they are making a request in an awkward way," he said. "They are asking for the skills they need to navigate the world."

Such instances enable universities to foster important dialogue. "When ignorance gets revealed, that shouldn't be the time we [universities] run," Roper said. "It should be the time we run toward."

Lukianoff said that hurtful or insensitive speech often prods young people, who are developing their worldviews, to reevaluate their convictions. And if a classmate's ignorance or insensitivity hadn't gone viral, the conversation never would have started.

"Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged," he said. "If you go through four years of college without having your beliefs challenged, you should ask for your money back."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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