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November 20, 2011

This past week, a UC Davis police officer sprayed pepper spray from close range onto the faces of students protesting rising tuition fees. There’s lots of footage of it on YouTube, including this clip:

The officer’s actions were heinous and unacceptable. What struck me was the officer’s utter disregard for the humanity of the protesters – and his nonchalance, showing off the bottle than strolling back and forth to make sure he gets all the protestors.

Beyond that, the police’s actions were pointless. Why do they need to move the protestors? Are they interfering with other people? Maybe they are violating campus policy, but is that policy a beneficial policy for UC Davis? If not, why enforce it? If the police wanted the protestors to move because their actions were against campus policy, they should have arrested them. Maybe that would have been difficult, but it was the right thing to do if they were violating university policy. The pepper spray was unnecessary and, again, completely unacceptable.

A UC Davis professor wrote an open letter to UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, demanding her resignation. The crux: “Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students.” Yes, actions are more important than words. It doesn’t matter what Katehi and other administrators say they’re going to do; what matters is what they actually do. Katehi has launched a probe into the incident – we’ll see what comes of it, whether it’s just words or actual actions.

I’ve wrestled with the tension between the imperatives of the freedom of speech and assembly on the one hand and the need for public health and safety policies that allow for people to live together in communities. It can be a difficult balance to strike. In this case, the outcome of any such balancing would clearly weigh against the reprehensible actions of the police but, in thinking about that tension more broadly, I found the following insightful: the right to peaceably assembly is empty if it can only be exercised within constraints defined by the government.

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