Nearly one year ago today, a few dozen people substantially disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, who was speaking at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in the UCI Student Center for a public lecture on "U.S. Israel Relations from a Political and Personal Perspective." The lecture was sponsored by 10 campus bodies including the Department of Political Science and the School of Law, as well as the Consulate General of Israel and three other off-campus bodies. Last week, according to the Los Angeles Times, 11 of the disruptive protesters were charged with "conspiracy to disturb a meeting" and with actually disturbing the meeting.
From the video of the event, as we reported last year, it seems clear that the disruption was organized and intentional. At least some of the disruptive persons were reading off of prepared cards, and after the first sentence of each disruption, the same group of a few dozen people immediately burst into applause—disrupting even the disruptor, since nobody could hear what was said after the first sentence.
Indeed, according to the LA Times, the students who allegedly planned the disruption, several of whom allegedly began to meet with other members of the UC Irvine Muslim Student Union (MSU-UCI) to discuss how to respond to Oren’s speech "as far out as six days before the event," also "circulated e-mails and held multiple meetings to plan the disruption of the speech. One of the students is accused of sending an e-mail to the MSU-UCI message board announcing that ‘we will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador’s speech.’" (This is a reference to the disruption of a talk that was being delivered on October 15, 2009, by then-Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert at the University of Chicago.)
Freedom of speech does not extend to substantial disruption of someone else’s exercise of freedom of speech.
FIRE doesn’t take a position on whether to file criminal charges. I will let Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas‘ statement speak for itself, so that readers may agree or disagree:
"We must decide whether we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy," he said. "We cannot tolerate a pre-planned violation of the law, even if the crime takes place on a school campus and even if the defendants are college students. In our democratic society, we cannot tolerate a deliberate, organized, repetitive and collective effort to significantly disrupt a speaker who hundreds assembled to hear."
The LA Times also reported (as have we) that the Muslim Student Union, a student organization, had been suspended by the university, and that individual students also had been disciplined by the university. On this point, one of the most important things to note is that when students and student organizations are charged with offenses on campus, they deserve their full due process rights. This includes treating similar cases similarly. Furthermore, any punishment for substantial disruption of an event should reflect the actions involved, not the prominence of the speaker who was disrupted or the political or religious beliefs of those engaged in the disruption.