Early last year, 11 Muslim students at the University of California, Irvine, interrupted a speech that was being given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. The students started yelling at Oren during his speech, calling him a “mass murderer” and a “war criminal.” Last week, 10 of these students were brought before an Orange County jury, facing misdemeanor charges. They were found to be guilty for conspiring to disrupt a meeting and disrupting the speech, and were sentenced to community service and probation. Although it is sad that these students are now labeled as criminals, the worst part is that freedom of speech is now being called into question on college campuses across the country.
“When you talk to students across college campuses, now they are pondering what is legal and what is not (concerning public speech),” said Kifah Shah, a spokeswoman for Stand with the Eleven, a group that supports the guilty students.”This has a chilling effect.”
However, the prosecutor, Dan Wagner, feels that these students were not merely exercising their freedom of speech. instead, they were acting as “censors” who used the “heckler’s veto” to keep the Israeli Ambassador from delivering his speech.
Evidently, these types of protests are becoming more common as pro-Palestinian activists try to disrupt Israeli speakers. In 2009, people at the University of Chicago interrupted a speech that the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was giving. It happened again in November 2010 when activists shouted and raised banners during a speech that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu game in New Orleans. On September 1, 2011, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was interrupted during their performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
In the case involving the 11 UC Irvine students, it was not only those students were punished. The school suspended the Muslim Student Union, which organized the heckling, for four months and the group is on probation for eight more months. Supposedly, students felt unsafe on campus, which was part of the reason for the suspension.
“Students felt harassed and intimidated,” said the director of the Zionist Organization o America’s Center for Law and Justice, Susan Tuchman. “The hostility was so severe that people feared for this physical safety on the campus.”
What interests me is the effectiveness of a student protest like this one. Sure, the students did get the speaker to finish his speech early and the question and answer session that was scheduled to take place after the speech did not take place. However, the group was also kicked off campus for several months and might be seen as the “bad guys” who intimidated other students. It seems that in the end, this kind of protest only has a short-term effect.
“The only way for long-term gains is through dialogue, as difficult as that is, ” said Shalom Elcott, the CEO of the Orange County Jewish Federation & Family Services in Southern California.
I have to agree with him.