Every few minutes during a talk last week at the University of California at Irvine, the same thing happened. A student would get up, shout something critical of Israel, be applauded by some in the audience, and be led away by police.
The speaker -Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States – was repeatedly forced to stop his talk. He pleaded for the right to continue, and continued. University administrators lectured the students and asked them to let Oren speak. In the end, 11 students were arrested and they may also face charges of violating university rules. (Video of the event, distributed by a pro-Israel group, can be found here.)
Those who interrupted Oren, not surprisingly, are strong critics of Israel who believe that they must draw attention to the Palestinian cause. But an argument put forward by some national Muslim leaders in the last week has sent the discussion in a new direction. Those groups maintain that interrupting a campus speech – even repeatedly – should be seen as a protected form of speech.
"The students voiced political views to shame the representative of a foreign government embroiled in controversy for its outrageous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Delivering this message in a loud and shocking manner expressed the gravity of the charges leveled against Israeli policies, and falls within the purview of protected speech," said a letter released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. That statement followed one by Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which said: "These students had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression, using peaceful means. We cannot allow our educational institutions to be used as a platform to threaten and discourage students who choose to practice their First Amendment right."
Those statements are quite different from the view of Irvine officials. Michael Drake, the chancellor, had this to say after the interruptions: "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."
All of this raises the question: Is interrupting a campus speaker ever a legitimate form of free expression?
Most higher education leaders welcome vocal protests outside a speaking venue and quiet protest (leaflets, for example) inside, but draw the line at interrupting speakers.
Last year, protesters disrupted a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by the former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a leader of the movement to limit the government and other benefits of those who do not have the legal right to live in the USA. The incident prompted Holden Thorp, chancellor at Chapel Hill, to condemn the protest. He said at the time: "We expect protests about controversial subjects at Carolina. That’s part of our culture. But we also pride ourselves on being a place where all points of view can be expressed and heard. There’s a way to protest that respects free speech and allows people with opposing views to be heard. Here that’s often meant that groups protesting a speaker have displayed signs or banners, silently expressing their opinions while the speaker had his or her say. That didn’t happen last night."
Many other experts on free speech and protest agree – and some are disappointed that national organizations are defending the right to shout repeatedly during a campus talk.
"That’s definitely not free speech," Jarret S. Lovell, a professor of politics at California State University at Fullerton, said of the interruptions at Irvine and similar tactics elsewhere. Lovell is a scholar of protest and the author of Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience (New York University Press).
Not only does Lovell think the tactic is wrong in that it denies a hearing to whoever is being interrupted, but he thinks it fails to win over anyone. "When you only hear sound bites" from those interrupting, the students come off as intolerant, he said. "There are so many better ways to demonstrate."
Lovell said that he believes students’ willingness to shout down someone they don’t like reflects the state of discourse in an era when people pick Fox News or NPR because they want to find information sources whose coverage they agree with. "People think there is no real reason for free speech when you can just change the channel. They believe that the marketplace of ideas means that if they don’t buy it, it doesn’t go in their shopping-cart."
As one who identifies himself as critical of Israel’s policies and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, Lovell said that the Irvine hecklers should realize what will happen next. "It’s only a matter of time until Norman Finkelstein speaks at UCI and Jewish groups shout him down," Lovell said of the controversial scholar viewed by many Jews as anti-Israel.
Wayne Firestone, national president of Hillel, takes a similar view. He said that the interruptions of Israel’s ambassador of course mattered to many Jewish students. But Firestone noted that the ambassador was invited by the law school and political science department, and he said that the issues involved would matter regardless of the topic of the talk or the views of the speaker.
He said that the idea that interruptions of a speaker are part of free speech is "a candidate for the worst idea of the year." He added that "if a precedent is set on this issue" that it’s OK to shout during a campus talk, "then any group that opposes any speaker can literally stop discussion and debate from taking place" by interrupting repeatedly during a talk. Firestone said that there should be many opinions on campus, and that all views should be expressed, but that to do so, you need "a notion of respect and fair play" that allows people to give their talks.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education blog featured similar views: "Failing to punish offenders appropriately is likely to threaten the free speech of future speakers by effectively condoning a ‘heckler’s veto’ through disruptive actions. That would make a mockery of the First Amendment."
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, defended his group’s defense of the interruptions at Irvine. He said that it was unfair to say that the students who interrupted were trying to shut down the talk because they voluntarily left the room after each interruption, and let the talk start again (until the next outburst at least) and eventually let it finish. "Let’s put it in perspective. The speaker had an hour to speak, and they each had less than a minute."
Ayloush noted that he is frequently interrupted when he gives lectures, and that it goes with the territory. "We firmly believe that both the representative of the foreign government had the full right to speak and the students being addressed have the right to express their speech, too," he said.
Asked why it might not be better to organize protests with a rally outside or leaflets or signs that don’t interrupt a talk, Ayloush said such approaches might well be better, but that this was beside the point and that he wouldn’t exclude the heckling strategy used at Irvine. "These are all tactics and different methods of expressing their free speech, and everyone might have their favorite," he said. "The First Amendment was never intended to be exclusively polite and courteous."
Yet another perspective holds that some, modest interruption (less than what took place at Irvine) may be seen as an expression of free speech that doesn’t limit the right of a speaker to be heard.
Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said he holds that view, although he said this was not a question on which AAUP has a policy. And he said that he believes that "most faculty members regard interruption as unacceptable."
Nelson said he is a fan of the speech/protest policy of the University of Michigan. That policy says: "Within the confines of a hall or physical facility, or in the vicinity of the place in which a member of the university community, invited speaker, or invited artist is addressing an assembled audience, protesters must not interfere unduly with communication between a speaker or artist and members of the audience. This prohibition against undue interference does not include suppression of the usual range of human reactions commonly displayed by an audience during heated discussions of controversial topics. Nor does this prohibition include various expressions of protest, including heckling and the display of signs (without sticks or poles), so long as such activities are consistent with the continuation of a speech or performance and the communication of its content to the audience."
Along these lines, Nelson said that some brief demonstration against a speaker doesn’t strike him as an assault on free speech "so long as the speaker is allowed to continue." He added that "an interruption that signals extreme objection to a speaker’s views is part of the acceptable intellectual life of a campus, but you have to let the speech go on," and he said that he did not believe that repeated interruptions were appropriate in that they would disrupt a talk. "Free speech doesn’t mean you are able to trample a campus event."
While defending such a tactic as potentially consistent with ideals of free expression, Nelson added that he personally always favored other approaches. Nelson was at a speech by John Sexton, the president of New York University, after that institution ended recognition of its graduate student union and fought off a strike by supporters of the union. Nelson said he walked to the front of the auditorium, turned his back on Sexton and stood silently through the talk. While the speech was not about graduate unions, Nelson said he wanted to show "my rejection of everything he stood for." But he said he wouldn’t have interrupted.
Nelson said that one of the most moving and effective protests he ever attended was as an undergraduate at Antioch College in the early 1960s. George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, was the speaker. No one shouted at him, although the students considered him hateful.
"The audience was totally silent and then, during the question period, no one would ask him a question and he began cursing at the audience, but no one would speak," Nelson said. "To me it was incredibly moving because of the solidarity of the audience, and of the possibility of a certain kind of silent witness," he said. Nelson said he wished more protests today used such an approach in which opposition is totally clear but no one tries to stop the talk.
"There is a tremendous sense of dignity in silent witness," he said.
Schools: University of California, Irvine