Student demonstrators at San Francisco State University (SFSU) disrupted a speech by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Wednesday. The demonstrators, who were reportedly associated with the SFSU chapter of the General Union of Palestine Students and several other student organizations, chanted for almost an hour, frustrating Barkat’s attempts to speak to those in attendance who wished to hear him.
While the protesters continued to chant, those who attended to hear Barkat—who was speaking at the invitation of Hillel San Francisco—crowded around him in an effort to actually hear him:
SFSU’s student newspaper, the Golden State XPress, reports:
“Free, free, free Palestine!” one of the lead protesters chanted, which the crowd behind her echoed. “If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no peace!”
While Barkat stood silently at the pulpit, Nilson and Jacob Mandel, student leader of the event, attempted to communicate with the protesters.
“We have heard your concerns; can you please have a seat?” Mandel said, his request quickly drowned out by the continued chants. […]
Despite being provided with a microphone, Barkat was still largely drowned out by the protesters, who migrated closer to the audience.
In a statement, SFSU President Les Wong affirmed the university’s commitment to the “free exchange of ideas and views” and noted that “[w]hile there is a right to dissent, we must also uphold the right to speak and to learn.”
In a letter to President Wong, Hillel International called for SFSU to conduct an investigation into the events and create a taskforce to “review and update the current SFSU codes and policies to ensure they sufficiently address the type of conduct committed yesterday as well as similar conduct that may be anticipated based on the current campus atmosphere.”
President Wong pledged a “full investigation of this incident to determine if any violations of campus policy occurred.”
Judging from the videos, this is not a difficult question. SFSU quite clearly prohibits the “[w]illful, material and substantial disruption or obstruction of a University-related activity,” which would presumably include indoor speeches hosted by student groups. It could not be credibly argued that almost an hour of continuous chanting was not intended to disrupt Barkat’s speech. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Without a right to listen to another person speak, the right to free speech is a hollow promise, subject to the heckler’s veto.
If SFSU does ultimately undertake a review of its policies, it should retain this straightforward language, preserve its speech-protective policy on protesting, and work to revise the “yellow light” policies FIRE has criticized.
[Correction: an earlier version of this post used a photo of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio instead of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Thanks to Yair Rosenberg for pointing out the error.]