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A University of California conference on free speech turned into a microcosm of the free speech battles regularly taking place on American college campuses after student activists showed up at the event in Washington Thursday and interrupted speakers to advocate for raises for the system’s graduate teaching assistants.

The handful of undergraduates representing COLA for All, a group pressing for a $1,412 monthly cost of living adjustment, or COLA, for teaching assistants at all UC campuses, at times stood in front of and interrupted speakers and panelists at #SpeechMatters2020, which was hosted by the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. The protesters, who are studying at the university system’s Washington center, said it was ironic that the conference was addressing how institutions should allow campus activists to respectfully express themselves while, at the same time, conference organizers were moving the protesters to the side of the stage to keep their posters from blocking audience members' views of the speakers on the stage.

The protesters held signs outlining information about striking teaching assistants back in California and calling on UC president Janet Napolitano, who sat in the front row, to resign.

Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the center, told the students they could remain but could not disrupt speakers. She used the recommended language UC Irvine includes in its policy for “preventing and responding to disruptions in real time.”

It was “fitting” to witness a live demonstration at a conference centered around campus protests and how they are handled, said Akshita Gandra, a UC Davis student who attended the conference and is a recipient of a Valuing Open and Inclusive Conversation and Engagement grant from the UC National Center. Gandra said she understands the protesters' frustration about graduate student salaries, which has been an ongoing issue since she came to the Davis campus four years ago.

“It may have been good to let them have five minutes with the mike to talk about the cause,” Gandra said of the protesters.

Protestors Missy Hart and Jazleez Jacobo accused leaders of the conference of silencing them.

“Why are you censoring me?” Jacobo said of being ushered to the side of the conference stage. “It goes along with the tactics that the university uses to silence us. Yeah, everyone has access to free speech, we're allowed to demonstrate, but did we make it in the frame?”

The protesters compared their treatment at the conference to clashes between police and protesters at UC Santa Cruz, such as earlier this month when 17 protesters on the campus were arrested for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse. The graduate teaching assistants have been protesting and striking since December and demanding an increase in pay to help them meet the high costs of living in California.

Graduate students at UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara on Thursday joined in on the strike -- labeled a “wildcat” strike because it was not endorsed by the United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union representing 19,000 student workers in the UC system. UC Santa Cruz graduate students participating in the strike refused to submit grades for the fall 2019 term, and UC Davis graduate students will follow suit for the winter term, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Jacobo said the strike, now spreading to other UC campuses, will have a ripple effect on undergraduate students, some of whom have not received their fall grades and risk having classes canceled.

“As undergraduate students, we’re not protected by anything,” Jacobo said. “So when I can't get my classes, or anybody else cannot continue their education … they’re not going to account for that.”

Hart and Jacobo said they and others were frustrated by Napolitano’s refusal to engage with them at the conference, which Jacobo called a “show.”

Administrators who confront protests on their campuses are “navigating treacherous waters,” Deutchman said during an interview before the start of the conference. She said she's sympathetic to institutional leaders who struggle with balancing students’ rights to express themselves and protecting the rights of students who feel harmed by certain types of speech.

“I have a lot of admiration for them, not just because they're the ones that are sometimes being criticized, but sometimes they're in the position of having to defend the right of somebody to come to campus,” Deutchman said.

Napolitano did not address or acknowledge the protesters who stood silently and held up signs during her opening remarks at the start of the conference. But in an interview the day before the conference, she discussed some of the challenges university administrators face when planned events and speakers spark controversy.

“Sometimes the protest activity takes the form of actually shutting down the speech,” Napolitano said. “It's a difficult problem for university administrators -- do you bring all the students up on student conduct charges? Do you try to do arrests? Do you just apologize and move on? That's a decision-making framework that university presidents have to go through.”

When it was time for the conference’s final panel, in which Napolitano and others were scheduled to discuss “executive perspectives on campus free speech,” Deutchman announced that the conference had gone over its allotted time and the panel was canceled. The protesters said they had planned to use the panel as an opportunity to confront Napolitano about the raises for the teaching assistants.

"Protest and participation aren't always easy, and they can often reshape our agendas, as they did today," Deutchman said after the conference concluded. "But they remain critically important to the smooth functioning of our democracy, and today we had an opportunity to see it live in action."

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