On the “Irvine 11″ and Civil Debate on Campus

The “Irvine 11,” a group of UC Irvine students, members of the Muslim Student Union, convicted of two misdemeanor charges in Orange County last Friday for conspiracy to disrupt a speech by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren and for the disruption of said speech in February of 2010, got what they deserved.

Their systematic disruption of the 2010 speech is part of a widespread trend among college students, usually on the left and commonly on the Islamist left, to shout down speakers with whom they disagree. The chilling effect  caused by such aggressive protests on campuses across the country has prompted prominent non-leftist, non-Islamist speakers to bring private security to speaking events, and campuses to require that student organizers arrange for campus security personnel to be present.

Efforts by student groups to silence the opinions of campus political minorities are an open assault  on the civil society colleges and universities should be fostering on their campuses.

I was surprised yesterday when I read an article by John Hrabe opposing last Friday’s conviction. Hrabe compares the case of the Irvine 11 to a scene from “Dead Poets Society”:

“The school’s headmaster Mr. Nolan warns, ‘One more outburst from you or anybody else, and you’re out of this school.” Ten students are undeterred. They defiantly stand on their desks and call out, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’

“Prep school pièce de résistance. I was moved.

“Movie critic Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was moved ‘to throw up.’

“’Dead Poets Society is a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something: doing your own thing, I think,’ [Ebert] wrote in the opening line of his scathing review.

“Which makes me wonder what the fastidious movie critic would think of an alternate ending, one in which the students are punished by the school and then brought up on misdemeanor charges by the local district attorney for conspiracy and disrupting a meeting?

“Oh wait, that isn’t fiction, but the real life story of the ‘Irvine 11.’”

But it’s not the story of the Irvine 11. The students in question weren’t protesting the firing of a favorite professor in their class room. They were systematically shutting down a speech they weren’t required to attend – a speech other students wanted to hear. “The Heckler’s-veto,” writes Hrabe “wasn’t the only First Amendment issue in this case.” The Irvine 11 were singled out for prosecution because they were Muslims, criticizing a Jewish Israeli.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the District Attorney selectively prosecuted,” said Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations — Greater Los Angeles Area, “because the students were Muslim, the speaker was an Israeli diplomat, and the verbal protests centered on Israel’s long history of war crimes.”

So the Executive Director of CAIR thinks the students were singled out because they are Muslims who were attempting to fight the Israeli/Palestinian conflict  in the auditorium of an Orange County campus? I doubt that these students were “selectively prosecuted.”

The Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine groups on Irvine’s campus have long led the most vitriolic “Israel Apartheid Week,” also known as “Anti-Israel Week,” in the country featuring  speakers such as Imam Abdul Malik Ali. Malik Ali is known for using Holocaust references, 9/11 trutherism, and his viceral hatred of all things Jewish and American to rile up campus Islamist groups across the country. His speeches have never been systematically disrupted or shut down by students. The MSU and its views are not singled out for punishment on campus, in fact they’re quite popular and wide-spread.

The question in this case was quite clearly the “heckler’s veto,” and the attempt to shut out of campus opinions that some students don’t like.

I’m not saying that debate on campuses should be “nice”—some things you just can’t be “nice” about—it should, however, be ordered and civil.

When controversial speakers are prosecuted under ridiculous “disturbing the peace” statutes, it sets up a forced choice for freedom. Every speaker must live in fear of prosecution, or worse, only the dissenting speakers get quashed. Either scenario is unacceptable because both outcomes lead to less speech.

In this case we have an example of the opposite of the scenario Hrabe illustrates. By taking a firm stand in support of civil discourse and in opposition to the “heckler’s veto” the Irvine 11′s prosecution could finally lead to an opening for civil debate and a hearing of all sides on our campuses.

If we expect young Americans to be educated and prepared to participate in civil society, colleges and universities should foster environments where all opinions can be heard and discussed; and enforce strict rules against the disruption of civil debate.

“Civil” disobedience has replaced civil society on our campuses. This case could be the first step towards restoration of free and open speech for students.

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