At the close of the academic year, some haunting language invaded Bakersfield College.
On May 3, the administration sent a rare mass email to all BC students, faculty, staff and administrators warning of vandalism on campus with a pledge to prosecute the perpetrator(s) “to the full extent of the law and our student code of conduct.” The communication also made an oddly conspicuous declaration about the importance of diversity and inclusion at BC.
A coordinated article concurrently published in the Renegade Rip student newspaper offered more insight. In addition to an uptick in unfortunate but college-typical genitalia-themed vandalism, the Rip identified a new scourge on campus: Hundred-Handers stickers.
Hundred-Handers is an anonymous conservative protest group that opposes immigration and other modern liberal agendas. The organization invites unknown participants to print and covertly post standardized protest stickers in public spaces.
In the case of BC, the stickers appeared on doorknobs, elevators and one or more posters promoting a Chicano studies forum. The college administration and involved faculty were quick to denounce the work as both vandalism and “hate speech.”
Vandalism is a legal term that requires malice or criminal intent along with some degree of destruction. That damage only need be minor (eg., re: Roland, 2011) so while it may be a stretch of the law a motivated prosecutor could interpret the stickers as vandalism.
Deviant behavior is usually handled quietly on campus, but on this occasion the administration opted for a far more public response. After all, the stickers differed from typical vandalism because they asserted a particularly disturbing message designated as hate speech.
What is hate speech and is it protected by the First Amendment? Each semester my students are often surprised to learn that the Supreme Court has routinely upheld that even the most despicable speech – that which we might label as hate speech – enjoys the equal protection under the law (eg. Virginia v. Black, 2003; Snyder v. Phelps, 2011; Matal v. Tam, 2017). In the interest of free speech, we all enjoy the right to burn a cross or American flag, so long as we do not cause eminent harm to anyone.
Despite this protection, we all should express discomfort with any genuine hate speech. It may be legal, but it is certainly not neighborly nor reflective of our better virtues. If the BC student code of conduct can suppress anonymous hate speech, should we seek that application?
We should also examine exactly what hate speech message occurred at BC. I am personally aware of two sticker messages and their contexts. One applied to the Performing Arts Center elevator in between several Chicano-focused events read, “Never Apologize for Being White.” Another affixed to a Chicano studies forum poster read, “Crush Cultural Marxism.”
Clearly Chicano-related events are the target, but what is “cultural Marxism” and how is that related? The term refers to the habitual application of the Marxist victim/oppressor binary and a consequent redistribution of power to remedy perceived injustice. It is the intellectual centerpiece of “social justice” efforts and the driving force of “equity” programs throughout California and at Bakersfield College.
Is that critique “hate speech” or simply speech that challenges a dominant agenda on campus? How might the college have responded if the stickers read, “Never Apologize for Being Black,” or, “Crush Capitalism”? The Che Guevara banner predominantly displayed at the entrance to BC’s recent Culture Night may indicate the answer. Does the hate speech accusation, along with the Rip’s characterization of the perpetrators as “white supremacists,” invalidate the sticker campaign’s criticisms or further substantiate it? We as a community need to be very thoughtful before discrediting opposing views as merely hate speech and then targeting it for exceptional legal action.
I am neither endorsing the sticker campaign’s methods nor its messages, but I am asking that the we take them seriously. Does our community’s college devote disproportionate attention and resources to certain groups at the expense of others? Does that marginalize some students? To what extent is that appropriate?
These are controversial questions with complicated answers, but we must not dismiss the issues simply because they challenge the status quo. As the adage instructs, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Matthew Garrett is a professor of history at Bakersfield College and the director of the BC Liberty Institute. He can be reached at Matthew.email@example.com.