by Zachary Psick
I write some of the angry comments you see online.
To me, the internet is something like the new Roman Forum; a public space where anyone can discuss the things that matter most. This kind of free exchange between citizens about everything from daily frustrations to matters of life and death is essential for a functioning democracy.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering several relevant cases, but so far, my view of the internet has been shared by most courts, especially when the cases concern sites managed by public servants. Public officials – including university employees – simply can’t block or delete critical comments on pages they use for official business.
Given legal precedent and basic professional ethics, it is unacceptable that UC Davis Chancellor Gary May has been censoring comments that criticize his leadership…especially considering his predecessor infamously tried scrubbing the internet of unflattering information before resigning.
Of course, I’m writing this because I’m a victim of his censorship, but I only realized he made censorship a practice because of other peoples’ comments about what is happening in Gaza. I’ll return to that after a little background.
I co-founded the UC Davis Chapter of the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) to support formerly incarcerated (FI) students, and I worked with USI leaders from across California to secure $4 million in annual ongoing taxpayer support for USI programs on every UC campus. Lawmakers believed in our model so much that they said the money was for USI specifically, unlike the support for former foster youth and undocumented students, which was designated more generally.
Some campuses recognized the unpaid work USI leaders and our allies had been doing since USI started at UC Berkeley in 2013 and worked with those students to establish USI programs with paid staff and services. Other campuses—including UC Davis—excluded USI leaders from the process entirely.
I’ll save the details for another op-ed, but I believe our exclusion was inappropriate, unethical, and probably illegal. After communication broke down with Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Pablo Reguerin and his staff—who were charged with deciding how to spend nearly half million dollars a year allocated for USI at UC Davis—I began appealing to Chancellor May through email while seeking bureaucratic remedies.
For example, last spring the UC Davis student government unanimously passed a resolution calling for several Student Affairs offices and staff to be investigated and calling on UC Davis administration to respond to USI leadership’s concerns.
The University administration simply ignored it. They not only didn’t address our concerns, but they refused to explain why.
Now, everyone who cofounded USI at UC Davis has moved on. The new student leaders who the administration is working with know little about how the administration came to hold the purse strings for the financial support their group depends on. I assume that was part of the plan; as career bureaucrats, administrators know they can wait inconvenient students out.
Given the lack of bureaucratic solutions and Chancellor May’s refusal to respond to emails, I began commenting on his Instagram profile. It seemed fair. He clearly uses it for official business. It’s the main way thousands of us get information from him.
And he’s proud of his following; as of this writing, he has a pinned post gloating about being an influencer now that he has more than 10,000 followers, apparently unaware that we follow him because he is the chancellor of a university community of 70,000 people.
My comments usually receive multiple likes, suggesting others hope he responds. He never does.
Recently I saw both Jewish and Palestinian campus community members appealing to Chancellor May on his Instagram page to do more in support of students impacted by Israel’s assault on Gaza and the October 7 Hamas attack. Instead of showing leadership in a difficult time, he deleted their comments and turned off the comment function.
After he began allowing comments again, he applied a setting so negative comments only showed up for him and the commenter. This setting is to impede online harassment, not to protect public officials from legitimate questions and criticism. None of the comments I saw cussed, threatened, or did anything other than express frank concerns about university leadership.
If Gary May wants to use social media to build his personal brand and become an influencer, then as a public servant using it in an official capacity, he should accept that his page is part of the new forum. He should show leadership and respond to his critics. If he can’t or won’t, then he should be transparent and leave their unaddressed concerns in place for others to see.
I want to know about the concerns of other campus community members, and to have a place to express my own. Online platforms run by public servants should always remain places where everyone can help shape the public narrative about the effectiveness of their leadership. It’s not a choice. It’s a responsibility.
Zachary Psick is a public scholar who has taught and done research, on mass incarceration and the wars on drugs and crime, at UC Davis since 2013. You can follow his new project – We Are All Students – on Instagram.