Last week my former employer made national news again. Or, more accurately, last week the fever-dreaming right-wing media echo chamber made my former employer its whipping boy again.
On Tuesday, February 19, a non-student activist representing the conservative group Turning Point USA was recruiting on Sproul Plaza when a non-UC individual got into an argument with him and punched him in the face. The assault was caught on camera. The video went viral in the right-wing media. On February 21, the victim was on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. On March 2, President Trump addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and brought the victim on stage.
“Sue him [the assailant], but he’s probably got nothing, but sue him forever,” Trump advised the victim. “But sue the college, the university, and maybe sue the state,” the President added, to raucous cheers from the crowd and a double thumbs-up from the victim.
This is where I would have come in. Anytime the likelihood of a lawsuit arose, I took a major role in pulling together the campus’s defense.
I’ve been gone from UC almost a year and have no inside knowledge of how the campus is handling this matter. But based on experience, I suspect the legal team recognizes this as a frivolous case that will be filed for publicity — to stoke that sense of persecution so essential to the Trump base’s identity — and is proceeding on that basis.
There is no criminal case against the University of California, much less the State of California. The criminal wrong was committed by the individual who assaulted the victim. So the victim will have to make some kind of civil claim that the University and the State of California had an obligation in law to him that they failed to fulfill.
That will be a challenge, because under California Government Code § 815, “A public entity is not liable for an injury, whether such injury arises out of an act or omission of the public entity or a public employee or any other person,” unless such liability is permitted under another statute. The victim can’t claim the University and State were obligated to protect him from the assault; the assault wasn’t foreseeable, the police can’t be everywhere, and under Government Code § 818.2, “A public entity is not liable for an injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt an enactment or by failing to enforce any law.”
So my guess is the victim will sue in federal court and allege some kind of Constitutional violation, such as an infringement of his First Amendment free speech rights. Except that’s not likely to work either, as the campus was allowing the victim to exercise his free speech rights and recruit for his cause without any University or State interference. It’s the assailant, and the assailant alone, who interfered with the victim’s First Amendment rights.
I’m not a fan of New York Times columnist David Brooks, but I think he’s on to something with his recently-proclaimed agenda for moderates. “Today’s left and right are fueled by anger and seek conflict. The big idea for moderates should be solidarity, fraternity, conversation across difference. A moderate agenda should magnify our affections for one another,” he writes.
Agreed. But I think we also have to recognize (as I’m not convinced Brooks does) that the sins of the social justice left are trivial compared to those of the perfervid right, which is fueled by anger and fear and has its own, enveloping media apparatus to foment that emotionalism. Have any doubts? Read Jane Mayer’s article about Fox News in this week’s New Yorker. (“Fear is a business strategy. It keeps people watching.”)
Punching a provocative but peaceful political activist is wrong, as the University of California itself stated when it learned of the incident. But is it nearly as threatening to democracy and the republic as an ideologically-driven media juggernaut engaged in propaganda, mass delusion, and government influence-peddling? Our President yields his microphone to the unfortunate activist and promises to issue an executive order requiring higher education institutions to “support free speech if they want federal research funds,” yet he ignores or denies climate change, and his priorities are ear-splittingly amplified by his media partisans. This is a potentially catastrophic flight from reality—and it’s all coming from the right.