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UCSD’s The Koala: no longer endangered

“We fancied ourselves as living, breathing proof of the First Amendment. Pure, free, unadulterated expression.”

A deeply unmellow yellow.
A deeply unmellow yellow.

Artist Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ served as my proper introduction to the meaning of free speech. Serrano, a Catholic, intended it to be a comment on the commercialization of Christian icons — the submerged-in-urine crucifix in the photo is small and plastic. But by the time I encountered it, the image had been shorn of context: somebody dunked Jesus into a jar of piss. And that somebody got a government grant. Taxpayer dollars, etc. I was a pious young man; my pained response was as much gut-felt as heartfelt. Yes, the First Amendment, but damn. Teenage me thought The Bastards were taking advantage of Christianity’s injunction to love thy enemy. Do they know what it means to hold something sacred? Can you imagine if they did this to some other religion?

Last month, French schoolteacher Samuel Paty displayed a degrading cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. Shortly thereafter, pious teenager Abdoullakh Anzorov beheaded Paty. But that was France. Here, in 2015, UCSD’s The Koala (“The Worse in Collegiate Journalism Since 1982!”) republished its 2003 special issue Jizzlam: An Entertainment Magazine for the Islamic Man — complete with a Guide to Sexual Positions in Prayer, a report on the Burkakke trend (“a great new way to abuse women before their horrible, public mutilation”), and an ad for Tears-of-Allah After-Sex Acid. According to The Koala, “The University shat themselves” over the initial 2003 drop, but no one got beheaded. The paper didn’t even lose its funding. Not over that, anyway.

The Koala’s last archived print issue, Spring 2016.

Instead, The Koala got nuked for an article parodying the proliferation of campus safe spaces (“UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” November 16, 2015.) “Safe spaces at UCSD are commonplace, and threaten individuals who do not like feeling safe,” it reads. Dangerous spaces continued “the university’s theme of inclusion and equality.” Maybe the administration thought the article’s use of the n-word provided a safe occasion for denouncing the paper as “profoundly repugnant, repulsive, attacking and cruel” in a November 18 press release. The statement also noted that “the UC San Diego administration does not provide any financial support for The Koala,” and called on “all students, faculty, staff, and community members to join us in condemning this publication.” The next day, the nuking: Associated Students UCSD pulled funding for all publications, perhaps to avoid getting dinged for going after The Koala in particular.

Gabe Cohen was the paper’s editor in chief at the time. “I remember there being a general sentiment among The Koala staff that campus life and culture had become politically correct to the point of absurdity,” he recalls. “Constant outrage at perceived injustices, designated safe spaces, and a need to ‘out-woke’ each other at all costs. We were poking the bear that we found to be detrimentally sensitive.” (And in proper Koala fashion: “Senior Frank Yu gave The Koala the following statement: ‘The needs of dangerous-space students have been overlooked for generations, but UCSD is finally recognizing what means the most to 19-year-old Asian nerds: fucking a dead body with a picture of my waifu taped on the face.’”)

So that’s what UCSD meant by “profoundly repugnant.” Cohen says that Koala-humor is successful because “it appeals to that part of us that enjoys imagining the most dark, twisted version of reality.” Also, “people like counter-culture, especially in college — you’re supposed to be challenging norms, right? At the same time, we fancied ourselves as living, breathing proof of the First Amendment. It was more about the principle of the matter and enjoying ourselves than anything else. Pure, free, unadulterated expression. If people got a kick out of it, then that was a bonus.”

Cohen & Co. got a chance to fight for that principle: they used the publicity generated by the nuking to raise money for self-publication. Better still, San Diego free-speech attorney Ryan Darby took up their case, eventually becoming co-counsel with the ACLU. In September, five years and over $800,000 later, the University settled, and The Koala regained its funding — and then some. (That astonishing number, which includes $662,317.86 in legal billings, is courtesy of a public records request by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.) “I hadn’t heard that figure,” says Cohen, who graduated from UCSD in 2016. “It’s insane. What if they spent that $800K on critical thinking or oratory courses? I maintain that the best antidote to speech one doesn’t like is more speech, not less.” Even “in the case of the teacher in France, more speech is needed. Some speech can have deadly consequences,” but “shutting up would be giving in to terrorism.”

Cohen grants that more information brought on by more speech “leads to more uncertainty, and we need better tools to be able to sift through the information with diligence and skepticism and seek truth.” (Critical thinking! Oratory!) He also understands governmental limitations on speech that causes real harm, though he stresses that “there’s a difference between diagnosable psychological trauma and hurt feelings.”

The focus for this year’s Student Orientation at UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance was “fostering community.” A departmental email noted that as part of that effort, “to help all feel known and respected, and to support social justice, space for Affinity Groups has been created. Affinity groups are a chance for people who share a common identity to gather. Participation can help members feel more visible and included in the community as a whole.” But segregation can have its dark side: the email notes that “white supremacist groups, fostered by increased social division, have returned to mainstream society. As a result, the affinity group for white/non-BIPOCs would focus on “allyship,” and be named the Anti-Racist White Ally Learning Group. “The goals and intentions of this group are to help white students, staff, and faculty learn about their racial identity and ways to become anti-racist allies.” One imagines that upon its return, The Koala might have something to say about fostering community by separating people into affinity groups, and by having a campus minority (whites make up about 20 percent of students, compared to 36 percent Asian) singled out in such fashion. ■

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A deeply unmellow yellow.
A deeply unmellow yellow.

Artist Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ served as my proper introduction to the meaning of free speech. Serrano, a Catholic, intended it to be a comment on the commercialization of Christian icons — the submerged-in-urine crucifix in the photo is small and plastic. But by the time I encountered it, the image had been shorn of context: somebody dunked Jesus into a jar of piss. And that somebody got a government grant. Taxpayer dollars, etc. I was a pious young man; my pained response was as much gut-felt as heartfelt. Yes, the First Amendment, but damn. Teenage me thought The Bastards were taking advantage of Christianity’s injunction to love thy enemy. Do they know what it means to hold something sacred? Can you imagine if they did this to some other religion?

Last month, French schoolteacher Samuel Paty displayed a degrading cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. Shortly thereafter, pious teenager Abdoullakh Anzorov beheaded Paty. But that was France. Here, in 2015, UCSD’s The Koala (“The Worse in Collegiate Journalism Since 1982!”) republished its 2003 special issue Jizzlam: An Entertainment Magazine for the Islamic Man — complete with a Guide to Sexual Positions in Prayer, a report on the Burkakke trend (“a great new way to abuse women before their horrible, public mutilation”), and an ad for Tears-of-Allah After-Sex Acid. According to The Koala, “The University shat themselves” over the initial 2003 drop, but no one got beheaded. The paper didn’t even lose its funding. Not over that, anyway.

The Koala’s last archived print issue, Spring 2016.

Instead, The Koala got nuked for an article parodying the proliferation of campus safe spaces (“UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” November 16, 2015.) “Safe spaces at UCSD are commonplace, and threaten individuals who do not like feeling safe,” it reads. Dangerous spaces continued “the university’s theme of inclusion and equality.” Maybe the administration thought the article’s use of the n-word provided a safe occasion for denouncing the paper as “profoundly repugnant, repulsive, attacking and cruel” in a November 18 press release. The statement also noted that “the UC San Diego administration does not provide any financial support for The Koala,” and called on “all students, faculty, staff, and community members to join us in condemning this publication.” The next day, the nuking: Associated Students UCSD pulled funding for all publications, perhaps to avoid getting dinged for going after The Koala in particular.

Gabe Cohen was the paper’s editor in chief at the time. “I remember there being a general sentiment among The Koala staff that campus life and culture had become politically correct to the point of absurdity,” he recalls. “Constant outrage at perceived injustices, designated safe spaces, and a need to ‘out-woke’ each other at all costs. We were poking the bear that we found to be detrimentally sensitive.” (And in proper Koala fashion: “Senior Frank Yu gave The Koala the following statement: ‘The needs of dangerous-space students have been overlooked for generations, but UCSD is finally recognizing what means the most to 19-year-old Asian nerds: fucking a dead body with a picture of my waifu taped on the face.’”)

So that’s what UCSD meant by “profoundly repugnant.” Cohen says that Koala-humor is successful because “it appeals to that part of us that enjoys imagining the most dark, twisted version of reality.” Also, “people like counter-culture, especially in college — you’re supposed to be challenging norms, right? At the same time, we fancied ourselves as living, breathing proof of the First Amendment. It was more about the principle of the matter and enjoying ourselves than anything else. Pure, free, unadulterated expression. If people got a kick out of it, then that was a bonus.”

Cohen & Co. got a chance to fight for that principle: they used the publicity generated by the nuking to raise money for self-publication. Better still, San Diego free-speech attorney Ryan Darby took up their case, eventually becoming co-counsel with the ACLU. In September, five years and over $800,000 later, the University settled, and The Koala regained its funding — and then some. (That astonishing number, which includes $662,317.86 in legal billings, is courtesy of a public records request by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.) “I hadn’t heard that figure,” says Cohen, who graduated from UCSD in 2016. “It’s insane. What if they spent that $800K on critical thinking or oratory courses? I maintain that the best antidote to speech one doesn’t like is more speech, not less.” Even “in the case of the teacher in France, more speech is needed. Some speech can have deadly consequences,” but “shutting up would be giving in to terrorism.”

Cohen grants that more information brought on by more speech “leads to more uncertainty, and we need better tools to be able to sift through the information with diligence and skepticism and seek truth.” (Critical thinking! Oratory!) He also understands governmental limitations on speech that causes real harm, though he stresses that “there’s a difference between diagnosable psychological trauma and hurt feelings.”

The focus for this year’s Student Orientation at UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance was “fostering community.” A departmental email noted that as part of that effort, “to help all feel known and respected, and to support social justice, space for Affinity Groups has been created. Affinity groups are a chance for people who share a common identity to gather. Participation can help members feel more visible and included in the community as a whole.” But segregation can have its dark side: the email notes that “white supremacist groups, fostered by increased social division, have returned to mainstream society. As a result, the affinity group for white/non-BIPOCs would focus on “allyship,” and be named the Anti-Racist White Ally Learning Group. “The goals and intentions of this group are to help white students, staff, and faculty learn about their racial identity and ways to become anti-racist allies.” One imagines that upon its return, The Koala might have something to say about fostering community by separating people into affinity groups, and by having a campus minority (whites make up about 20 percent of students, compared to 36 percent Asian) singled out in such fashion. ■

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