By: Evan Ismail, SSW and Andreas Rauch, SSW
A video taken at UCR Wednesday morning, Sept. 27 garnered national media attention and reignited a debate surrounding freedom of speech on college campuses. The video, taken by Matthew Vitale, a fourth-year economics major, depicts a heated dispute between he and fourth-year ethnic studies major Edith Macias over a “Make America Great Again” hat she snatched off his head at an organization training event sponsored by UCR Student Life. Attracting over two million views in the first 24 hours since being posted on Facebook, the video has been featured on prominent sources such as KTLA, Fox News and the Los Angeles Times.
The incident started as Vitale, donning his “MAGA” hat, attended the Student Organization Leadership Retreat for on-campus clubs and organizations, representing the UCR College Republicans. During an ice-breaker in HUB 302, Macias grabbed Vitale’s hat off of his head and ran through the HUB and to the Student Life office in HUB 229 where she argued with Vitale and Student Life employees.
Student Life employees attempted to defuse the situation while Vitale explained he has a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. Macias then tells him “your fuckin’ freedom of speech is genocide, homeboy.” Student Life employees then took the hat, after which Macias declared, “we’re in a country where literally people of color are getting genocide, they’re getting killed.” The video ends as campus police arrive.
Since the video’s posting, media attention has centered on the conflict as reflective of the state of college politics and dialogue. The video initially spread through right-wing and conservative sources, largely due to Vitale’s involvement with conservative and right-leaning activism. This spread culminated in a short feature on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” As of time of writing, coverage had also spread to the Los Angeles Times and KTLA.
Attention also soon turned to Macias, following the public exposure of her Facebook profile in the video’s comment section. Since the incident, Macias has received death threats and hateful messages. A GoFundMe set up by Macias in August for an apartment payment has also attracted significant attention, retrieving donations largely from her critics.
In a campus-wide email sent on Friday, Sept. 29, Chancellor Kim Wilcox cited events “where individuals have expressed offensive and repugnant views that denigrate members of our community,” and called on the student community to “affirm that our dedication to free speech need not conflict with our commitment to mutual respect.” The letter, titled “Joint Statement on UCR Principles of Community”, was also signed by Aram Ayrapetyan (ASUCR President), Shawn Ragan (UCR GSA President), Dylan Rodriguez (Academic Senate Chair) and Julie Salgado (UCR Staff Assembly President).
In an interview with the Highlander, Vitale expressed that “freedom of speech is under attack on the college campus.” He went on to say “college students need to understand that they don’t get to silence people in this country because they disagree.” In response to Wilcox’s statement on the matter, Vitale said, “I think it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech on the part of Chancellor Wilcox. Free speech protection is there to ensure even the most repugnant speech is still allowed to be said.” He ended with, “Free speech protects speech in spite of societal norms of mutual respect; it is not subordinate to respect.”
The office of student conduct is conducting an ongoing investigation on the incident. A statement provided to the Highlander by JD Warren, director of news and information for UCR, reads, “The unfortunate incident that was recorded and shared on social media does not conform to UCR’s Principles of Community.” It continues, “UC Riverside stands by its deep commitment to freedom of expression, civil discourse, and respectful interactions within our community.”
Macias refused a request for comment. Chicano Student Programs did not respond to requests for comment. Due to an ongoing investigation and privacy laws, UCR’s student conduct office refused to comment on the incident.
Correction: A previous version of this article falsely claimed that Macias was representing UCR’s Chicano Student Programs. That was incorrect and it has since been updated. The Highlander regrets the error.