On Monday, a few dozen people 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.
According to an account distributed by an off-campus, pro-Israel organization named StandWithUs, "it was clear to everyone in the audience that the MSU [the university’s Muslim Student Union] had orchestrated the raucous effort to prevent free speech." From the video of the event posted by StandWithUs, 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 disrupter, since nobody could hear what was said after the first sentence.
According to StandWithUs and the video, at least 10 people, one by one, stood up, shouted, got applause from the concentrated group, and then were ushered from the room by police. At some point, the whole group rose from their seats, further disrupting the event, and left noisily, drawing much attention to themselves and shouting toward the audience.
The video shows UCI officials announcing to the audience that UCI students who disrupted the event would face disciplinary charges that could lead to suspension and expulsion. Given the severity of the disruption and the fact that it was premeditated and organized, UCI has the right to follow through with the discipline that it judges the disruptive students deserve, as long as their punishments are fair and equitable. (Since the lecture was open to the public, we do not know whether all of the disruptive persons were students.)
Speaking to the audience, a UCI official also confirmed that the people who were disrupting the event by standing and shouting were being arrested. This should be no surprise; by disrupting Oren’s speech, what they were practicing could at best be called civil disobedience. And as with any civil disobedience, those breaking the law should be willing to face the appropriate penalties.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that "UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich says nine Irvine students and two students from UC Riverside were arrested for disturbing a public event. All were cited and released."
To his credit, despite the interruptions, Ambassador Oren calmly awaited his next opportunity to speak. As the video shows, he pointed out not only that the disruptive persons were violating campus rules and the law, but also that they were violating basic standards of hospitality.
What the disruptive students must understand is that in the United States, our rule of law protects the speech of people like Ambassador Oren when it is his turn to speak, regardless of what he stands for and regardless of the audience’s opinions of him or his nation. That rule also protected Dutch politician Geert Wilders when he recently spoke out against Muslim terrorism at Temple University. Of course, the same protection would be extended to any of Oren’s Palestinian counterparts. One way it protects them is by protecting them against disruptions by people in the audience when it is not those people’s turn to speak. It is not an exercise of free speech to speak out of turn and disrupt someone else’s event; on the contrary, it can even be criminal to do so.
As The Jerusalem Post reported:
Prof. Mark P. Petracca, chairman of the university’s Political Science department, chastised the protesters, telling them, "This is beyond embarrassing… This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave. We have an opportunity to hear from a policy-maker relevant to one of the most important issues facing this planet and you are preventing not only yourself from hearing him but hundreds of other people in this room and hundreds of other people in an overflow room. Shame on you! This is not an example of free speech."
Further, if it can be proved that UCI’s Muslim Student Union was involved on an institutional level, the organization itself may suffer disciplinary consequences for orchestrating or coordinating the disruption. StandWithUs’s account, if it can be corroborated, suggests that this may be the case:
The organizers of the protest were seen coordinating the screams from their seats by text messaging on their cell phones, and the Muslim Student Union president may have been among the eleven arrested for disrupting the event. The UCI administration will need to consider sanctions for the MSU since it was clear to everyone in the audience that the MSU had orchestrated the raucous effort to prevent free speech.
A letter to the editor/press release suggests that the MSU may indeed be officially involved: "The members of the Muslim Student Union at the [U]niversity of California, Irvine, condemn and strongly oppose the presence of Michael Oren on our campus today." The item, published on February 9, begins with "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" and ends with contact information for the MSU (firstname.lastname@example.org). More investigation, as long as it is conducted fairly, is probably warranted.
StandWithUs also notes that "Just a few hours before Professor Oren’s event, Israel’s Senior Legal Advisor, Daniel Taub, had spoken at the UCLA Law School, and also faced a disruptive demonstration. Like Ambassador Oren, Mr. Taub responded with calm, dignity, and a sincere invitation to the demonstrators that they ask questions during the Q and A. Instead, they, too, refused to cooperate, and marched out, escorted by the police." If this account is correct, these disruptive persons may also face the appropriate consequences. UCLA, UCI, and the local police must act appropriately to make sure that these communities know that unlawful disruptions of free expression will not be allowed either on campus or in the community. 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.