Free speech is a sacred right in America. But when speech is used to intimidate, or to stop another person from exercising that right, responsible parties look for ways to assure all sides may be heard and respected.
That's the point emerging from the administration at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) in the wake of the February 8 shout-down of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren during his speech on campus.
Oren's remarks were interrupted no less than 10 times by student demonstrators, whose actions appeared to have been guided by the campus Muslim Students Union (MSU).
Having made their point – they don't like Israel, its policies or its representatives – the students persisted in trying to stop Oren from being heard. Their shouting was described as "an orchestrated campaign in which he said students were assigned a position and statement to read in order to disrupt the ambassador's speech." Police were called and 11 students, including MSU's president, were arrested.
Islamist organizations have spent the past week turning the students into free speech martyrs. They're called the "Irvine 11."
In a column published Monday on the Huffington Post, Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) Executive Director Salam Al Marayati argued the students' political views trumped their behavior:
"The protest of Ambassador Oren's speech did not occur within a vacuum, but rather as a reaction to a string of numerous attempts to stigmatize Muslim students of UCI and squelch their free speech." Additionally, "The university needs to acknowledge the history of institutional harassment of Muslim students as they engage in campus activism."
Marayati's column followed a letter MPAC sent to UCI administrators which asks why the students were arrested instead of just ejected. It ironically demanded "that universities be preserved as spaces for free and open discourse."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Lawyer's Guild sent in their own letter protesting the students' arrests. Silencing the visiting ambassador is acceptable because it "expressed the gravity of the charges leveled against Israeli policies," the letter said.
Mahdi Bray, executive director of Muslim American Society Freedom (MASF) called the 11 "students of conscience who have taken a principled stand on human rights and the sanctity of all life, non violent protest is as American as apple pie."
UCI officials should be credited for trying to teach the students and their defenders about the difference between exercising and stifling free speech. The day after the event, UCI Chancellor Michael Drake issued a statement on his website:
"This behavior is intolerable. Freedom of speech is among the most fundamental, and among the most cherished of the bedrock values our nation is built upon. A great university depends on the free exchange of ideas. This is non-negotiable. Those who attempt to suppress the rights of others violate core principles that are the foundation of any learning community. We cannot and do not allow such behavior."
UCI School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky stated, "You have the right – if you disagree with me – to go outside and perform your protest. But you don't get the right to come in when I'm talking and shout me down. Otherwise people can always silence a speaker by heckler's veto, and Babel results."
A website called "Stand with The Eleven" was created to support the arrested students, and includes their personal statements about the incident. Their language indicates that the intention was to silence the ambassador, as Osama Shabaik writes:
"The UCI bias towards favoring the Israeli regime has been made reinforced by this latest saga. It is a shame that the university would allow a man like Oren to speak on their campus, when the only stage he deserves is in front of the International Criminal Court."
That's a laughable assertion. UCI has repeatedly been the subject of complaints, and even a Department of Education review to determine whether the MSU fuels a hostile environment on campus (See here and here).
It's not clear whether the 11 students will be charged - the case has been submitted to the Orange County district attorney. But it would be nice if the self-anointed voices of moderation learned that if a university can allow speech like this or this on campus, it should hear from a foreign diplomat too, even if it's someone they don't like.