The answer to a proposed ban is rarely a proposed ban on that ban.
A student legislative council at the University of California, Irvine, recently voted to remove a U.S. flag from a lobby. This legislative council is a subset of the student government. Six students voted in favor of removing the flag, four voted against it, and two abstained. The student government’s executive cabinet quickly reversed the vote.
The chancellor responded that it was “outrageous and indefensible that (the legislative council) would question the appropriateness of displaying the American flag on this great campus.” The chancellor was not alone.
A backlash against the backlash followed. Of course.
Professors, students and others signed a petition stating that “nationalism, including U.S. nationalism, often contributes to racism and xenophobia,” and that “the paraphernalia of nationalism is in fact often used to intimidate.” Of course it has. But in this instance, those broad statements were not helpful.
The petition fails to acknowledge that nationalism, a synonym for patriotism, can be an enormous source of good.
It is fine to be disappointed or even enraged when the powers that be take an action with which we disagree. It’s similarly just as fine to be proud when representatives take an action that we support and to voice that support.
But let’s have a moment of honesty here. It is much easier to voice displeasure in our government’s actions in the U.S than it is in most other nations. I am about to criticize a number of state representatives, and I have no thoughts about the need to censor myself.
The petition states: “UCI has been inundated with racist, xenophobic comments and death threats against the students from people who are, precisely, invested in the paraphernalia of nationalism.” That statement, to make a gross understatement, is problematic.
We have half a dozen students voting to remove a flag from a lobby of a public university, other students, a chancellor and many others condemning that action, and then other groups of students and professors condemning the condemners. What could possibly go wrong?
The vote became national news because this type of action does not happen very often. But legislators need not let the lack of a real problem prevent them from proposing a solution.
First-term Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, has the solution to this non-problem. She is proposing that we amend the California Constitution to ban state-funded colleges and universities from banning flags.
Now, it is true that California’s Constitution is one of the most bloated governing documents in use by a Western democracy. But that should hardly give us license to add one more law.
Nguyen’s news release touting her proposal mentions veterans and servicemen and women several times.
Let’s talk about people who have served and continue to serve our country. Let’s talk about making sure that they have jobs, educations and health care. Let’s have a debate about how best to treat those Americans who risk their lives to keep us safe. Those are actual and important issues that need attention. The same is not true of the ability of a student council to vote for the removal of an American flag.
Students have a right to self-govern. And they did. The legislative council voted in favor of one action. The executive cabinet voted against that action.
Students should use college as a time to explore, express themselves, test boundaries, make some mistakes and make some more mistakes – as long as those mistakes lack the hallmarks of intolerance.
And government representatives should fix real problems, not news stories that look like they might at some time point lead to a potential problem. Let’s give the California Constitution a little rest and not lard it up with a ban on bans.
Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu and tweets at @LevinsonJessica.