'Triggered' UCI students demand senator resign over joke
A student government representative at the University of California, Irvine is facing a recall effort after several Muslim students took offense over a joke he posted on social media.
George Novshadyan told Campus Reform that he has apologized repeatedly, both verbally and in writing, for posting the ill-considered joke, but that his detractors are unwilling to accept any punishment short of his removal from office, flatly rejecting the notion that his comments are a legitimate exercise of free speech.
The joke was posted Monday to a Facebook event page for a private “politics tacos” party that a group of politically-minded students hold periodically as a sort of informal salon, and almost immediately attracted harsh criticism from members of the Muslim Student Union, who say they were “triggered” by the post.
“Remember to pray at least five times before the party and refrain from eating the entire day,” Novshadyan wrote in the comment, which he claims was based on an inside joke from the previous “politics tacos” gathering. “Allah is most High and Merciful, and the Prophet Muhammad shall grant us eternal Glory, Peace Be Upon Him. Plus, not eating will help you get drunk faster and easier. It is time to cleanse your heathen souls from heresy. Allahu Akbar!”
Below that, he also included two hashtags—“#AnteatersforIslamicPreteenAnalCoitus” and “#UnitedinSavagingAllah”—intended to underscore the humorous intent behind the post.
“At one party, we were basically making jokes, and to me they were funny, so when the event came up for another party, I thought it would be funny to post them on the event page,” Novshadyan explained to Campus Reform. “Looking back, maybe it wasn't wise for me to do that, and that's how all this started.”
Novshadyan’s joke came to the attention of another student, Manisha Priyadarshini, who proceeded to take a screenshot and post it on her own Facebook page Monday night with the caption, “Seeing the type of students that represent politically affiliated clubs on campus scares me. Don’t tell me it’s just a joke.”
The item prompted an extensive discussion in the comment thread in which Novshadyan and his supporters continued to maintain that the comment was meant as a joke, and generally defended themselves against the contention that the joke is Islamophobic hate speech and violated the “safe spaces” of Muslim students.
The very next day, the complaints against Novshadyan took a more ominous turn, with members of the MSU taking the floor during the public comment portion of a regularly scheduled Student Government meeting to demand his impeachment.
Nick Gallo, a friend of Novshadyan’s who is also involved with the “politics tacos” group, told Campus Reform that the opposition was well-organized for their offensive, showing up to the meeting equipped with prepared statements and large signs with slogans, but Novshadyan’s supporters were not notified until the last minute, preventing them from organizing his defense.
“The Council meeting was basically an ambush, because it happened literally the day after the posts were made, and we only found out about an hour before they were going to hold the meeting,” he said. “I'm a representative for the Association of Graduate Students (AGS), and they were holding a meeting at the same time, but when I found out they were doing this to George, I ran down to help him out. He's my friend, and I was the only one who could come to support him on such short notice.”
Video footage of the proceedings provided to Campus Reform shows a parade of students, most of whom identify themselves as members of the MSU student group, lambasting Novshadyan mercilessly, arguing that his comments promote “physical violence” against “marginalized bodies,” and repeatedly calling on the Legislative Council to impeach him.
“You have just committed all sorts of hate speech crimes and you’re telling me that I can’t feel safe here,” Priyadarshini declared at the start of the meeting. “Actually, not only did you tell me with your actions but your friends that you brought on to my page, on to my forum, invading my privacy, tells me repeatedly that I should not accept safe spaces—that me wanting to have safe spaces as a woman of color at UCI, that’s just not going to happen.”
The next speaker chose to read Novshadyan’s post aloud, occasionally interjecting his own commentary praising Allah, after which he not only asked for impeachment, but added, “I also call on the administration to write a letter, to place it on his record, to place it on the record of each and every body who acted in that way, so future employers, future colleges, know exactly who you are, exactly what you’re about.”
Another pair of protesters then subjected the audience to yet another recitation of the offending post, attempting to ask Novshadyan for an explanation before being instructed that all comments would have to be directed at the Chair, and settling instead for a brief statement asserting that “these are the type of thoughts—they aren’t just sentiments and attitudes—[that] are reflective of institutional violence … [and] that allows the United States to go and bomb our countries, to go and execute violence against our people.”
After subsequent speakers described Novshadyan’s comments as both contrary to institutional ideals and representative of CR’s as a whole, Gallo rose to address the assemblage, observing that “We’re pretty surprised that this got so out of hand,” and categorically dismissing the idea that CR’s deserve any blame for the sentiments.
“We’ve heard today that speech is violent; speech is harassment,” he said. “These things are absurd. We live in a culture [where] people mock each other; they make jokes.”
Drawing attention to the hypocrisy of some of the complaints, Gallo drew a comparison between a recent Saturday Night Live skit characterizing Donald Trump supporters as neo-Nazis and KKK members and similar accusations made against Novshadyan and his defenders in the Facebook discussion thread.
“I’ll point out the hashtag that George put up was meant as a joke about political correctness, and this militant PC culture that we’re seeing very heavily right here,” Gallo said at the end of his remarks. “I think it’s absurd that you’re trying to kick George out over a comment he made on this essentially private post. It is part of our culture that people have free speech.”
The next protester rejected Gallo’s free speech argument, saying, “we all know what the difference [is] between a joke and something that’s serious, and when it comes to black lives and Muslim lives, there’s no such thing as a joke because there are actually black people dying every day, and Muslims dying from hate crimes.
“So actually, that’s absurd, to say that it’s just a joke when the statistics show that, actually, a lot of people die because of this rhetoric,” she said, adding, “Actually, political correctness is encouraged because people are actually dying, and if we don’t speak up, and if we don’t stand up for ourselves, then this type of violence actually does happen … like, a physical violence.”
Priyadarshini then returned to the podium to add her own rebuttal to Gallo’s contentions, asking “whether the First Amendment means a pass to say whatever abrasive sort of heinous, you know, imagination, creativity you want to use to say evil things, and is that okay.”
After complaining that some of the comments on her Facebook page were critical of her views, she implied unequivocally that the answer to her question should be “no,” asserting that her conservative classmates “have no respect of their students, their peers, to other authority figures, to anyone outside of themselves and the little bubble that they have created, which allows for a free pass to say any sort of offensive and just hate speech … So, at the end of the day you need to re-evaluate what you think are First Amendment rights.”
Gallo was prevented by the Chair from requesting a show of hands from the audience to arbitrate the free speech dispute, but managed to make his point anyway by observing, “She just said that she doesn’t think this is protected by the First Amendment, so we’ll let inferences be drawn from that.”
The next student began by apologizing “that everyone had to hear that,” and said that while he was not going to “fight with [Gallo] over the whole freedom of speech thing,” he did want to know whether “you think that it’s right to think that way.
“Forget about saying things; do you think it’s right to think in such a bigoted way?” he asked Gallo in defiance of the Chair’s repeated instructions not to engage the audience. “You have so many people here today that are talking about how frustrated, how scared, and how triggered they were by all these comments that have been made. It’s not just about the speech, it’s about the mentality.”
Several other rants followed, largely reiterating the points that had already been raised, though one student took the opportunity to personally attack Novshadyan, saying, “If I see you grow up and, like, one day be on, like, Governor or something, I will literally—probably not even lie—spit on your grave, not even joking,” to which her confederates responded with an ovation.
Finally, toward the end of the meeting, Novshadyan was given the chance to address his detractors, offering profuse apologies for his comments but refusing to concede that he deserves to lose his job because of them.
“After hearing all the comments that have been said, I think it is in order that I formally do apologize for the post that I made on this event page,” he began, noting that while he still maintains that the post “was simply a lighthearted attempt at a joke … I do admit there was some very bad wording.
“I can understand why you found this offensive and I can also understand why you want me to resign but I will not resign,” he continued, vowing the Legislative Council would have to impeach him in order to remove him from office.
“One of the main reasons I don't want to resign is that if I succumb to the pressure, they win; political correctness wins, and it sets a bad precedent,” Novshadyan told Campus Reform, noting that it was later determined that the Legislative Council does not actually have an impeachment mechanism, forcing representatives to draw up a petition that night to begin the process of recalling him.
To make matters worse for Novshadyan, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Thomas Parham weighed in on the side of the protesters Wednesday, releasing a statement commending the students who “exercised their rights to freedom of expression” with their efforts to silence Novshadyan.
“In defending fundamental rights of freedom of speech … the best remedy for hateful or discriminatory speech is often more speech, not enforced silence, because ‘Hearing offensive viewpoints provides opportunities for those sentiments to be exposed, engaged, and rebutted’,” Parham asserts.
“I write to commend all members of our community who gathered last night and exercised their rights of freedom of expression to expose, engage, and rebut the sentiments recently expressed by one of our student government leaders,” he continues, adding that, “In doing so, I want to also acknowledge this as a teaching moment for our student whose behavior in this circumstance, even in light of his apology, might have fallen short of the goals and aspirations we suspect that he embraces as a student leader on campus.”
Despite the administration’s lack of support, Novshadyan told Campus Reform that his primary concern is not for himself, but rather for the students who have been made collateral targets simply for having relationships with him.
“They tied my comments directly to the College Republicans, even though when I made the comments, it was not in the context of my role with either Student Government or CR's,” he said, declaring, “If I'm going down, I'm going down fighting and I'm going down by myself—I don't want to take anyone else with me.”
Thursday evening, Novshadyan’s fellow College Republicans attempted to distance themselves from the controversy by pursuing the expulsion of both him and Gallo, as well as by issuing a public statement in which they essentially concede most of the contentions offered in the many public denunciations of Novshadyan.
“While the members participating in this thread did not intend to be offensive or malicious to any particular students or communities, we understand that the content of the comments made have disrespected members of the student body and the community,” the group concedes, reiterating that the post “was in no way defensible on its merits and wording ... Hence, our organization would like to make a sincere apology for those comments, especially to the Muslim community at UC Irvine.”
Asserting that “we will always defend free speech and the right to speak one’s mind,” they neglect to address whether the actions called for with that speech might infringe on Novshadyan’s right to speak his mind.
Ariana Rowlands, vice president-elect of the CR’s, summed the group’s position up, telling Campus Reform that given the offensive nature of Novshadyan’s comments, “he deserves everything that he’s getting.”
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete