WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- The University of California at San Diego administration colluded with a Mexican-American student militant who threatened violence against a campus magazine's staffers in a failed bid to punish the disfavored publication, a series of e-mail messages revealed.
Nicholas S. Aguilar, director of student policy and judicial affairs at UCSD, encouraged Ernesto Martinez, chairman of the Student Affirmative Action Committee, to contact his office "for assistance in the filing of complaint per the UCSD Conduct Code" against staffers of the Koala, a student humor magazine.
In a telephone interview, Aguilar stressed to United Press International that Koala staffers were not brought before the campus Judicial Board because of the magazine's content but rather because of their allegedly "disruptive" behavior.
But Koala Editor in Chief George Liddle said he believes the university doesn't like the magazine because of its satirical content and was looking for a behavioral pretext to expose its staffers -- and the Koala organization -- to potential punishment. The exchange of e-mails, which began with a "Hello everyone" salutation from Martinez on Nov. 20, supports Liddle's version of events.
The editor was asked how the Koala got access to the exchange.
"We got it legally," he answered. "Apparently, somebody involved in this conversation doesn't understand what the 'Reply All' button does. This sent the whole series of e-mails to everyone who received Martinez's initial complaint."
Aguilar told UPI that the Koala was brought before the campus Judicial Board because the magazine had allegedly interfered with the meeting of another student organization. Liddle said that the Koala had asked that the board's proceedings be open to the public, and the board chair eventually ruled in the magazine's favor. Aguilar said he overruled the chair's decision, ensuring that the hearings were held behind closed doors, because the chair had exceeded her authority.
"Campus regulations require that formal hearings on student disciplinary matters be held in closed session unless all participants -- including witnesses -- agree to it. That was not the case in the Koala hearing," Aguilar said. He would not elaborate on the facts of the case, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Liddle said that on Nov. 19 two Koala staffers "tagged along" with a freelance photographer to attend a meeting of MEChA, the Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicanos de Aztlan, which describes itself as "a union of free pueblos forming a bronze nation." In 1996 MEChA called for the "liberation" of Aztlan, which it defines as the seven states of the U.S. Southwest -- California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. In Article II, Section 1 of its constitution, MEChA defines "liberation" as the "self-determination of our people in this occupied state and the physical liberation of our land." The meeting was billed as being open to the public, Liddle said.
"One of our purposes is to allow students to learn some of the day-to-day functioning of a media organization," the editor said. The Koala staffers wanted to see how an experienced photographer would take pictures "in kind of a dynamic situation."
The three were stopped at the door, Liddle said, and the photographer -- who is not affiliated with the Koala -- was asked not to take pictures. "He apparently did not heed that order," said Liddle, who was not present. "The meeting was set up so that all the people in attendance were sitting in a circle. And they went around the circle and introduced themselves, and they gave one word that described themselves, and then the meeting began with the business of MEChA." At some point in the middle of the meeting, the photographer took pictures, and the three got up and left.
"That's it. There was nothing disruptive about anything they did," Liddle said. "If we're going to be prosecuted for going to an open meeting and taking pictures, then our ability to function as a media organization is going to be negated by that."
The next day Martinez sent a widely distributed e-mail "to let you all know that I now truly am in a hostile environment." Having his picture taken against his will was "a rather disturbing event, and honestly," he wrote, "I am feeling harassed."
Martinez threatened "these Koala people" with violence. "It has crossed my mind several times to physically fight back so this (unwanted photography) can stop. ... I am tired of being a target of ignorance, and I am tired of trying to educate this campus that is not diverse. .... If no positive support is received from UCSD administration, such as putting a stop to the Koala, then we as students of color will have to retaliate. If we are forced to retaliate, campus environment will be hostile the rest of the year."
On Nov. 21, Aguilar responded with a "Hello Ernesto" e-mail that indicated the university's concern was not for the safety of the threatened Koala staffers, but rather for Martinez's. "SOHR (Student Office for Human Relations) Director (Elizabeth) Urtecho ... indicated that she spoke with you today and offered to help you in bringing this matter to the attention of the UCSD Police Department," Aguilar wrote.
Liddle said that after Martinez filed his complaint, the university "appears to have seized upon this as an opportunity to get rid of an organization that perhaps some of the administrators don't like. He's (Aguilar) colluding with the complainant. They are plotting the demise of our organization."
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Joseph W. Watson, Aguilar's boss, disputes this. "We have tried always to protect the right of student publications, even those with which we have disagreements," he told UPI. "This was a case where there was a matter of allegations about behavior, and we have addressed that independent of the content of the Koala or what we think of that content." Last year Watson said: "We condemn the Koala's abuse of the constitutional guarantees of free expression and disfavor their unconscionable behavior."
Pressed on the subject of Martinez's threats, the vice chancellor said he believes that Aguilar and Urtecho had spoken to Martinez and had come to the conclusion that "there was no immediate threat here."
On Nov. 25 Aguilar wrote to Martinez "on behalf of Chancellor (Robert C.) Dynes, Vice Chancellor Watson, and myself." Aguilar reminded Martinez that "although we could not support request to initiate disciplinary action against the Koala because they published an offensive article (in the fall issue) protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution ... I ... encouraged you to contact Student Legal Services for assistance in assessing legal recourse that may be available to you and others who were targets of the Koala publication. In addition I assured that my office would process any complaints of alleged misconduct not based on the content of the publication."
Regarding Martinez's perceived "harassment," Aguilar wrote, "I again encourage you to contact my office to discuss options that may be pursued in response to the conduct you describe."
On Nov. 28 Aguilar informed Martinez "that SOHR Director Elizabeth Urtecho was developing a plan to counter/mitigate the negative consequences of the Koala publication on UCSD campus environment."
Liddle disagrees with Aguilar's interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. "We suspect the fact that we had this exchange of e-mails is one of the reasons why the university was so adamant that the media not be allowed to attend the hearing. It's pretty embarrassing. It casts a very serious shadow on the idea that the university is just trying to administer justice and maintain order. It starts to look a whole bunch more like a witch-hunt, especially when (Aguilar) claims to be speaking on behalf of the chancellor and the vice chancellor," the student editor said.
"The code section they prosecuted us under bans disruption or obstruction of a university activity. That's horrendously broad. It could be interpreted as asking an unwelcome question in class. They're scratching for anything to get rid of us," Liddle said.
"When they came to us with the equivalent of a plea bargain, their proposed settlement was that we suspend our organization for a year and a half. ... That would be a serious setback to us in multiple ways. Being kicked off campus interrupts the continuity of the flow of students into our organization. We would lose our office space on campus and access to funding by student government, which judges its funding allocations partly on reliability of publication. If we took a year-and-a-half hiatus because of university action against our organization, when we did come back we would have no history that student government would be allowed to consider under its bylaws.
"The university knows what its doing. It's all blown way out of proportion," Liddle said.
The campus Judicial Board apparently agreed. This week the board "ruled that, in fact, there was not enough evidence to substantiate that student complaint that representatives of the Koala had disrupted the meeting," UCSD Communications Director Winifred Cox told UPI. "And so the charge was dropped."