December 19, 2018

Free speech, hate speech: Where’s the line at UCLA?

Where does UCLA draw the line when it comes to speech and conduct protected by the First Amendment? When are words and actions punishable according to university standards?

Those are questions some Jewish and pro-Israel UCLA students and faculty have been asking since Lisa Marie Mendez, a UCLA student and former work-study employee at the UCLA Medical Center, posted multiple blatantly racist, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments on the Facebook page of Jewish actress Mayim Bialik, and on that of the group Students Supporting Israel (SSI) at UCLA. Mendez wrote posts that drew attention on Dec. 9, 10 and 11. 

“Go Murder some Palestinian children so you can have their parents arrested and move into their home,” Mendez wrote. “Greedy lifeless pieces of s— people. Capitalist colonizers who steal and kill from other races to promote your dead ideologies.”

“F—ing Jews,” she wrote. “GTFOH [Get the f— out of here] with all your Zionist bulls—, ” Mendez wrote.

“I live in the ghetto, and if you’re a Jew, you’re white. Not black, not middle eastern [sic], not Asian — white. Being a Jew is not a race — it’s a faith system that keeps you inbreeding long enough to believe you’re preserving your race, and keeps you thinking you’re entitled to take someone else’s land.” 

There’s much more, and her posts can still be found on Facebook and other websites. 

After SSI posted on its Facebook page an alert to Mendez’s comments, demanding a public condemnation from UCLA, Mendez (who changed her Facebook profile’s name to “Zatanna Zatarra,” a comic book superheroine) wrote a comment that reads, in part, “I can imagine that colonialists like you can’t have people like me with good jobs, especially when behind closed doors you treat us all like slaves. I’m Mexican, my family is from the land we stand on. You’re the foreigners, locusts who steal resources and oppress people … I work with you people everyday. I go to school with your rotten children who have screamed obscenities in my face … You never had your family dragged out of your house by the cops, or had to witness your children gunned down by them, have your family destroyed when they are deported, etc.”

Mendez did not immediately respond to an email or private Facebook message from the Journal requesting comment.

On Dec. 16, Janina Montero, UCLA’s vice chancellor for student affairs, sent an email to UCLA’s 42,000 students condemning Mendez and her comments, without naming her. “The hurtful and offensive comments displayed ignorance of the history and racial diversity of the Jewish people, insensitivity and a disappointing lack of empathy. Bigotry against the Jewish people or other groups is abhorrent,” Montero wrote.

On Dec. 17, Kelsey Martin, interim dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, wrote a letter “in regard to the reprehensible anti-Semitic Facebook post allegedly made by a student who also has a work study position in the University Health System.” Martin strongly condemned Mendez’s posts, but added that UCLA “cannot control the activities of individuals in their personal lives when not acting on behalf of the University, and that the First Amendment protects individual’s private speech, however reprehensible the University and the medical school finds it.”

In an interview this week, Liat Menna, president of SSI at UCLA, who was first to draw public awareness to Mendez’s posts, said she’s disappointed with UCLA’s reaction and believes its decision not to punish Mendez is inconsistent with its interim suspension of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the Alpha Phi sorority after they held a “Kanye Western” themed party on Oct. 6, during which, according to the Daily Bruin student newspaper, partygoers wore baggy clothes, plumped lips and dressed as “Kardashians.” 

There is “110 percent inconsistency between them suspending a group that indirectly attacked a minority and [not punishing] an individual who directly and blatantly attacked a minority group,” Menna said. “Had it been any other minority group on campus they would’ve taken it, I think, with greater heaviness, and would’ve put on an investigation to see when and where she was posting online.”

On Oct. 8, UCLA released a statement titled “UCLA statement on ‘Kanye West’-themed fraternity party,” in which it stated, in part, “Both Greek organizations allegedly involved have been placed on immediate interim suspension of all social activities pending the outcome of the investigation. While we do not yet have all the facts, the alleged behavior is inconsistent with good judgment as well as our principles of community.”

But on Jan. 12, a new explanation emerged for the groups’ suspensions, when UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez sent a statement to the Journal, explaining that the two Greek organizations were suspended not for the content of the party itself, but “for violating policies on properly registering a campus event,” adding that the sanctions on the fraternity and sorority end the week of Jan. 10.

“They were sanctioned for failing to properly register a social event,” the statement says. “The sanctions issued were consistent with those imposed for similar violations of Interfraternity and Panhellenic council standards. There is a difference between sanctions imposed on a registered student group for violating procedures when hosting a campus-related social activity and an individual expressing her own personal views on social media.”

On Jan. 7, in response to a request from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), UCLA wrote another letter condemning Mendez’s “reprehensible anti-Semitic comments,” adding that she “previously” had a work-study position within UCLA’s health system — a position that, according to her Facebook page, she began in October. Vasquez told the Journal on Jan. 12 that Mendez is not currently employed by the university, but did not give a reason.

The ADL’s published response on the matter stated there’s no evidence to suggest Mendez made the posts while at the medical center, or that she discriminated against Jews at work.

Arielle Mokhtarzadeh, a UCLA sophomore and vice president of Bruins for Israel, applauded the administration for quickly responding to Mendez’s Facebook posts, but said she is skeptical that “a response from the administration is going to actually change the realities on the ground for the experiences of Jewish students.”