James Franco's Facebook Faceoff

It used to be that back in the day, college students would launch raucous street protests or wage sit-ins over things like war, segregation and poverty.

These days, at least at UCLA, the protests are conducted via Facebook groups and the pressing issue is which celebrity should give the school’s commencement address.

“Milk” actor James Franco, a UCLA alum, bowed out of the June 12 graduation festivities, citing a professional conflict. The move followed the formation of a Facebook group called, “UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker,” and an editorial in the Daily Bruin portraying the “Pineapple Express” co-star as too young and inexperienced to send the graduates into the world.

The Facebook group, which launched in March and has more than 600 members, offers a fascinating look into an issue that appears to have galvanized much of the student body in a protest – in both form and content – that would have been unimaginable to their parents’ generation.

The group page has spurred more than 250 posts, some of them obscenity-laden, nasty notes from folks on both sides of the debate over Franco, who graduated UCLA last year after returning to school following a lengthy hiatus.

“You people are mean,” one poster wrote. “It's just a freaking commencement speech. Who cares? Jesus Christ himself could come down and give the commencement speech and a year from now you won't remember a word of it.”

Another commenter offered this blunt – and undeserved – assessment of the 31-year-old actor, who had been willing to give his valuable time to his alma mater: “James Franco is a [expletive].”

Meanwhile, a second Facebook page formed demanding that newly minted “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien – a 46-year-old Harvard grad – replace Franco. That group boasts more than 2,700 members.

O’Brien politely declined. Now the school has tapped Linkin Park guitarist Brad Delson, from UCLA’s Class of 1999 – another controversial choice, judging from Facebook posts.

With the grads heading into a world rife with unrest and economic turmoil, it would seem they have more important things to worry about than a celebrity commencement speaker. Maybe because they’re leaving school in scary times, the students are asserting themselves through a means they’re comfortable with – the Internet – to give them a sense of control in an age that doesn’t offer much certainty.

Or, maybe, as one Facebook poster declared, “You guys are just whiny b-----s.”

Read it however you want, but when it comes to the commencement address flap, it’s the students’ actions – online – that speak volumes.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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