[Ayloush is executive director, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area. Lafferty is Executive Director, National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles.]
Eleven students heckled Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren at different intervals at a UC Irvine event recently and set off a debate on what constitutes free speech and when it should be protected.
The right to freely express oneself, particularly against government policies, is a cherished freedom protected by our Constitution. That’s why we were not surprised when people protested at health care town halls, when a congressman interrupted the president’s address to Congress, or when audience members disrupted a speech by former White House lawyer John Yoo at UCI in 2005.
While some may argue that the students’ tactics against Oren were loud and rude, our opinions on the politeness of such conduct are irrelevant. The students merely voiced their passionate discontent on a grave political and moral matter they deemed worthy of their activism.
Israel has undertaken a massive public-relations campaign to salvage its negative image over its violations of international humanitarian and human-rights law, and Oren – as the Israeli government’s representative – must have anticipated vocal audience opposition, the same way supporters of Apartheid-era South African government speaking at U.S. campuses did in the 1980s.
Though their protest was delivered in a loud and shocking manner intended to express the gravity of Israel’s immoral policies and actions, the students were nonviolent, nonthreatening and peacefully left the public gathering as soon as they spoke.
Some try to characterize this incident as a case of Oren’s right to free speech. News reports and videos of the event clearly show that his talk was not wholly disrupted. The interrupting remarks amounted to no more than 10 seconds by each student, barely two minutes total, versus Oren’s allotted time of about an hour. Oren left the stage for some time, but then returned and, despite shout-outs from supporters and opponents, was able to continue his speech.
Public speakers, including ourselves, know that speaking on highly charged topics invites opposing viewpoints. Our own public appearances over the past 15-plus years have been interrupted by jeers, heckling and protests. And, although we don’t enjoy being subjected to that, we know that the freedom exercised by some who rudely interrupt us is the same that protects our right to publicly and freely speak our minds on important political matters.
We are troubled to see that, for exercising their right to free speech, the 11 students at UCI were cited by campus police and faced the threat of disciplinary action, including possible expulsion, not only by the university, but also potential criminal charges by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
It is incomprehensible that an institution of higher learning that claims to engage in and promote the free exchange of ideas now seeks to punish its students for peacefully expressing political views, however unpopular, at a student-organized event.
Over the years, there have been countless instances of protest activities during campus speeches, including at UCI, with no comparable disciplinary action taken that we know of. By disproportionately and selectively punishing one set of protesters and not others, including the counterprotesters at the same event, who cursed, threatened and even assaulted students, the university has chosen to censure a particular set of political views – the legitimate criticism of Israel.
Freedom of speech is a two-way street, and it must not be restricted to what is popular, respectful, or appropriate speech, though such guidelines might be preferred by us and others. Oren has the right to speak, even if it is to justify Israel’s occupation and brutal policies. Similarly, the students have the right to dissent, even discourteously.
Both sides exercised that right.
We urge the university to drop all charges and disciplinary actions against the 11 students and redouble efforts to reach out to all students, including Muslim and Jewish students. Not doing so will cause a chilling effect on First Amendment rights on college campuses and our society at large, and leave many students feeling excluded and unwelcome.