UCSB Professor Faces Assault Charges After Dispute With Pro-Life Protesters

[UPDATE 3/16: This article has been revised to include information from a UCSB Police Department crime report detailing Miller-Young’s account of the incident.]

[UPDATE 3/14: This article has been revised to include quotes from Kritina Garza of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust and information on the petition in support of Miller-Young created by student Facebook group UCSB Microaggressions.]

Feminist studies Professor Mireille Miller-Young is facing vandalism, battery, and robbery charges after an incident in the Arbor last Tuesday, March 4, in which she took and destroyed a poster depicting graphic images of aborted fetuses displayed by members of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, a Riverside-based pro-life group.

While walking from class to her office in South Hall with some of her students at around 11 a.m., Miller-Young saw the graphic posters and confronted the protesters, arguing with them and drawing in a crowd of surrounding onlookers. After a heated argument, Miller-Young took the poster and began taking it to her office, followed by two pro-life protesters, 21-year-old Joan Short and her 16-year-old sister Thrin. After entering the elevator in South Hall, Miller-Young attempted to stop the girls from following and, as shown in a video taken by one of the protesters, appears to have pushed them away. According to a UCSB Police Department crime report, once in her office, Miller-Young used scissors to destroy the poster, which she found offensive as a pregnant woman who teaches about women’s “reproductive rights.”

In the crime report, which describes a conversation held between Miller-Young and a UCPD officer whose name has been redacted, Miller-Young took responsibility for taking and destroying the poster and refused to give the names of students who were “following” her. Although she said she did not know “what an acceptable and legal response to hate speech would be,” Miller-Young said her actions were justified.

“Miller-Young went on to say that because the poster was upsetting to her and her students, she felt that the activists did not have a right to be there,” the crime report states.

Further, Miller-Young said she had a “moral” right in taking the poster, as showing graphic imagery was “insensitive” and a violation of University policy.

“Miller-Young argued that she set a good example for her students … [and] likened her behavior to that of a ‘conscientious objector,'” the crime report states. “Miller-Young said that she did not feel that what she had done was criminal. However, she acknowledged that the sign did not belong to her.”

According to the crime report, Miller-Young said her response to the protestors may have been influenced by the fact that she is preparing to undergo a test that will determine if her child has Down Syndrome. In addition, she offered to pay for the sign and expressed interest in an out-of-court settlement, but maintained the protestors had violated her rights.

“[They violated] my personal right to go to work and not be in harm. … I work here. Why do they get to intervene in that?” she said in the crime report.

The protestors from Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust could not be reached for comment, Sergeant Rob Romero of UCPD has not responded to several phone calls about the incident since last week and Miller-Young declined to comment further due to pending charges.

UCSB Director of News and Media George Foulsham said the university cannot speak about the matter but the incident is currently being reviewed.

“The University is aware of the incident and it is being reviewed by the appropriate offices. It is University policy not to discuss personnel matters,” Foulsham said in an email.

But on campus, a debate has arisen of whether or not Miller-Young’s actions are legally considered a restriction of free speech. William Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E.), said the pro-life group’s posters and actions would be considered protected speech under the law.

“Those graphic images are protected speech, protected by the First Amendment, however distasteful, shocking or offensive they may be to some or most viewers,” Creeley said. “Taking down the signs, if the signs have been permissibly placed on campus, is an act of vandalism and also an act of censorship, so we would oppose those kinds of vigilante responses to protected expression, regardless of content of expression. … I encourage folks who feel angered, disgusted, repelled, to respond with speech of their own, make their own posters, have their own protest.”

According to UCSB Students for Life President Andres Riofrio, his campus group is not affiliated with Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, and the protestors are from Thomas Aquinas College, although their school did not sponsor or support the protest. UCSB Students for Life upholds a policy that “any graphic picture of abortion victims be shown to someone after getting their explicit permission.” However, the group issued a statement in support of the young protesters on their public Facebook page.

“Feminist studies Prof. Mireille Miller-Young violated the rights of a 16-year-old girl speaking out for the rights of the most vulnerable among us,” the statement reads. “Isn’t feminism about respecting the rights of everyone equally?”

While Riofrio said the two groups practice different tactics, the two organizations share a common goal and he said pro-life groups generally face such resistance when protesting.

“As pro-life activists, we expect to be verbally and physically abused because we know people have very personal feelings about abortion,” Riofrio said in an email. “Last year, we did a non-graphic display called the Cemetery of the Innocents and a woman repeatedly try to steal our signs. This year we have been yelled at a few times as well. But we have to speak up. Otherwise, who will be a voice for the voiceless?”

A student in Professor Miller-Young’s Women of Color class, who requested to remain anonymous, defended the professor for her reaction to the posters and said Miller-Young has faced harassment since the incident. She said the pro-life protesters “sensationalized” what occurred.

“She’s pregnant, so she’s very sensitive to horrifying images like that,” the student said. “That group posted on Christian websites about the professor, and she’s been getting a lot of hate mail. People are calling her a baby killer, saying she looks like she’s from a safari because she’s black and from Africa, that she’s going against Rule of God … She’s tried to show hate mail to police, but no one’s helping her so she’s just talking with her defense attorney.”

A student Facebook group called UCSB Microaggressions has set up a petition on change.org addressed to Chancellor Yang and other members of the UCSB community that requests a  statement of solidarity with Miller-Young and greater restrictions on content that may be traumatic to students or trigger unwanted reminders of past experiences. At the time of publication, the petition had 1,009 signatures with a goal of 1,700.

“Your dedication to campus safety must include addressing the presence of triggering people and images on our campus as well as supporting Professor Miller-Young who is a fundamental part of not only Feminist Studies department, but also to the University,” the petition states.

Kristina Garza, outreach director for Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, said she was surprised to see a professor react so strongly, and aside from a few exceptions such responses to the group are “rare.”

“We’re shocked and we’re appalled that a professor, someone who’s supposed to be role model for students, not only did something illegal, but that she would encourage others to break the law,” Garza said. “No matter what your difference in opinion is, no one justifies breaking the law. Perhaps she is angry or felt the law did not apply to her because she was professor. It is obvious from the video that she was inciting other students to violence.”


Video Courtesy of SurvivorsLA

This story appeared as an online exclusive on Thursday, March 13, 2014.