How UC Davis Tried to Scrub Its Abuse of Students From the Web

The university spent at least $175,000 dollars to remove "references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor."

Brian Nguyen / Reuters

Back in 2011, when Occupy Wall Street protests roiled dozens of college campuses, I published a series of articles about an egregious instance of police brutality at UC Davis, where Lieutenant John Pike, acting under ambiguous orders from superiors, used an unapproved pepper-spray device to chemically assault student activists, who were assembled peacefully and lawfully on a campus quad during the daytime.

At first, lots of news outlets covered the story, but as it faded from the headlines, I kept attempting to hold the culpable parties accountable by publishing followup articles about the findings of an official investigation, the staggering amount of time it took for Pike to be terminated, and the obscene fact that he wound up with a bigger payout than any of his victims. I hoped that the public––especially voters, UC administrators, and legislators here in California––would take notice and act to improve evident flaws in the system.

Imagine how vexing it is to find out, several years later, that after journalists like me worked to document this matter, UC Davis “contracted with consultants for at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of negative online postings” on the pepper-spraying and “to improve the reputations of both the university and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.” So reports The Sacramento Bee, adding that UC Davis signed a 6-month contract with a PR company at a rate of $15,000 per month, and that one objective described in the company’s proposal was the “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor."

It was to be “an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign.”

The administrators who approved this expenditure, one that neither the legislature nor the taxpayers would’ve approved in a million years, spent public funds to disappear speech that was core to a vital, ongoing debate at their university. They deliberately made it more difficult for members of the public, academics, prospective students, and parents to learn about the pepper-spraying incident.

What’s more, they subverted the speech of UC Davis faculty like Nathan Brown, an assistant professor of English who posted an open letter on the Web that declared:

I write to you and to my colleagues for three reasons:

1) to express my outrage at the police brutality which occurred against students engaged in peaceful protest on the UC Davis campus today

2) to hold you accountable for this police brutality

3) to demand your immediate resignation

He went on to write, “There must be space for political dissent on our campus.” And then, months later, administrators hired a firm to scrub letters like his from the searchable Web.

UC Davis said this in a statement Thursday:

Increased investment in social media and communications strategy has heightened the profile of the university to good effect. As part of this overall communications strategy, it is important that the excellent work underway at UC Davis with respect to educating the next generation of students, pursuing groundbreaking research, and providing important services to the State is not lost during a campus crisis, including the crisis that ensued following the extremely regrettable incident when police pepper-sprayed student protesters in 2011.

Put another way, administrators still don’t understand why what they did was wrong.

My colleague James Fallows writes:

What happened at Davis nearly five years ago was brutal though not necessarily a “crime.” But it will receive ten times the lasting notice, online and elsewhere, because of this cleanup effort than if the university had just let it be… local and statehouse reporting really matters. Congratulations and thanks to the Sacramento Bee. This is the part of journalism under greatest pressure in this era’s “creative destruction” of the media business, but the Bee’s persistence mattered. Congratulations, thanks, and respect. Now, for those in charge of UC Davis…

Yes, about those in charge. Do they intend to endorse this behavior?

If Donald Trump is elected, does the UC Board of Regents think it would be appropriate for him to spend taxpayer funds on an effort to scrub Google of stories about brutality by federal law enforcement and others which harmed his personal reputation? I suspect that every last person on that body would object vociferously.

The regents should act accordingly in this case, especially given that Katehi had already lost the confidence of many students for moonlighting on corporate boards, at least one of which seemed to pose a clear conflict of interest with her duties.

These latest revelations are, Scott Shackford writes, “another example of colleges no longer fulfilling their roles as defenders of speech and openness, combined with abusive police behavior, with an added dash of the administrative bloat that's driving up higher education costs.” He adds, “in the years since Katehi took over in 2009, the budget for the communications office has grown from $2.93 million to $5.47 million.” If Katehi could make due with the old communications budget there would be $2.5 million every year to spend elsewhere.

More state legislators are now calling on her to resign. And I hope the Sacramento Bee is looking into whether the office of Janet Napolitano, the head of the UC System, knew about this expenditure, or has ever paid for Google-scrubbing in other matters.

Stay tuned.