CSUSM will not remove controversial Instagram comment, citing First Amendment rights


Screenshot by Anneliese Esparza

On an official CSUSM Instagram post, a user tagged the Instagram account of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a comment to an undocumented CSUSM student. The university will leave up the comment because of First Amendment rights.

Anneliese Esparza, Editor-in-Chief

A comment on a CSUSM Instagram post sparked differing opinions on whether the university should censor speech deemed contrary to its values or allow such speech because of First Amendment rights. 

A user with the handle @_fear_no_evil responded to a comment by a CSUSM student who identified themself as undocumented in a separate comment by tagging the Instagram account of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Neither individual wished to be publicly identified for this story.

The university recently decided that it will not remove @_fear_no_evil’s comment, saying that a government institution’s social media is a public forum and that the comment did not qualify for one of the narrow exceptions to the First Amendment. 

The exchange between the two appeared under a June 11 CSUSM post about the then-upcoming Supreme Court decision on the legal status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA, an immigration policy that protects undocumented individuals brought to the U.S. as minors from deportation and offers them work permit eligibility, was upheld by the court.

“At CSUSM, we believe everyone has the right to pursue their academic interests, complete their education and find their passion regardless of immigration status or national origin,” read the CSUSM post in part.

A student with the handle @iloveebabykittens_, who revealed their undocumented status in a separate comment, wrote, “If you as an institution truly value [DACA]/undocumented students you will provide full financial aid for them to be able to [continue] their studies and help them with safe and affordable housing and keeping [ICE], border patrol off campus. Anything less than that, y’all don’t really care.”

In response, @_fear_no_evil said, “[F]ull financial aid for people who are in our country illegally? Wow and people say white [privilege] is a thing.” 

@iloveebabykittens_ replied by tagging the Instagram accounts of the DREAMer Resource Office, the Office of Inclusive Excellence and the CSUSM Alumni Association. 

@_fear_no_evil responded by tagging ICE. 

In a message to The Cougar Chronicle, @_fear_no_evil said he intended no threat.

“… [T]he student at the time did not mention [their] documented status and [t]agging [ICE] was not a threat to anyone in any way. It was simply a [retaliation] after the student tagged organizations on campus to back their discussion and confront me rather than the person themselves discussing one on one with me,” he wrote.

@iloveebabykittens_, who declined to give their name or gender, said in a message to The Cougar Chronicle that @_fear_no_evil’s comment made them feel “[really] unsafe and uncomfortable.”

@iloveebabykittens_ complained to the Office of Communications, the Office of Inclusive Excellence and the Dean of Students but was told that the comment would not be removed. 

“… I really wish that whoever makes these rules for public institutions recognizes that we need to move forward and make changes in institutions if we are truly serious about dismantling systemic racism and oppression. As a campus we also cannot advocate for diversity if there are no efforts to make sure that students from marginalized populations feel safe,” wrote @iloveebabykittens_.

Chief Communications Officer Margaret Chantung said that the university reviewed the comment but will keep it up. 

“As a university, a public university particularly, we have to be viewpoint neutral in providing platforms to anybody who wants to speak their diverse perspectives … We can certainly as a campus community denounce them and say that that does not align with our values, but unfortunately, we’re not able to take away that right for that individual to express those opinions that are theirs,” said Chantung.

While some individuals commented under the CSUSM post that @_fear_no_evil’s comment should be removed on the grounds of hate speech, Chantung said that hate speech is not a federally recognized exemption from protected speech, nor does hate speech even have a legal definition. 

Chantung said that on a public forum like official CSUSM social media accounts, the university would only censor federally recognized exemptions to free speech such as true threats or an incitement of imminent lawless action. @_fear_no_evil’s comment did not meet the definition of such exemptions.

“I think when there’s speech that we don’t agree with, the best thing we can do is call it out and engage in conversations, and that’s how we ultimately as a society move forward,” Chantung said.

Fina Espino, the Office Coordinator for the DREAMer Resource Office, condemned the comment because she said it may make undocumented students feel unsafe at school. 

“We definitely don’t agree with this behavior, and it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t able to be removed,” she said.

“I just want our students to know that although with this incident the DREAMer Resource Office couldn’t really do much, we’re still trying to push for change, and we still have resources here at the office so please reach out to us, we are here for you,” Espino said. 

To learn about resources for undocumented students, visit csusm.edu/dreamer/index.html.

For information on free speech at CSUSM, visit csusm.edu/freespeech/.

You can see the original CSUSM post and all comments on the post at instagram.com/p/CBTYV8wBlyg/.