For two days in mid-May, large, graphic exhibits which many in the UCLA community found highly offensive were displayed in Bruin Plaza and in the Court of Sciences. The exhibits were sponsored by an anti-abortion UCLA student group and were prepared by Justice for All, an out-of-state nonprofit organization that advocates against abortion rights. In large part because of the graphic and arguably lurid nature of the exhibits, many who observed them sent letters and e-mails to campus senior administrators challenging the appropriateness of such displays on campus.
I want to explain why UCLA had no right to order the exhibits’ removal, and, further, underscore why the right to display such exhibits — no matter how distasteful even to the majority — lies at the core of our most honored First Amendment traditions.
As a campus of a public university, UCLA is subject to the constraints imposed upon government entities as they pertain to the people’s rights of free expression. The student organization and Justice for All have unquestioned First Amendment rights to communicate their message in public areas of the campus, all in the interest of encouraging a robust exchange of ideas.
No communication of any kind can be restricted by a government entity based upon its content unless that content is within one of the few categories of expression that fall outside of the protections accorded by the First Amendment, most notably: obscenity (“works which … portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious . . . political … value”), defamation (“a false publication subjecting one to hatred, contempt or ridicule”) and fighting words (“those that incite imminent lawless action”). And no content-neutral restrictions on speech are permissible unless they serve a significant government interest such as those pertaining to safety and traffic flow on streets and sidewalks.
What often is not understood is that the First Amendment protects speech even when it is offensive — or highly offensive — to some, or most. Speech cannot be punished or banned simply because it offends. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that viewers who dislike a message can “avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes,” and that free speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
With these thoughts in mind, I want to underscore that it is not my purpose to seek to mitigate the offense taken by those understandably offended by the anti-abortion exhibits conspicuously displayed and graphically presented. Rather, it is my hope that those offended will gain a greater appreciation for why it is that the campus respected the First Amendment rights of those sponsoring the exhibits, and why it is that, in doing so, the campus embraced core American free speech values and honored the university’s role as a leading marketplace for the exchange of ideas, no matter how controversial their content and no matter how passionate their presentation.