The University of California, Irvine (UCI) has suspended its Muslim Student Union (MSU) for one year, effective Sept. 1, and placed the group on disciplinary probation for a second year — from September 2011 to August 2012 — as a disciplinary action for the disruption of a speech on campus in February by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
The MSU is appealing the decision.
On May 27, Lisa Cornish, senior executive director of student housing, sent a letter to the MSU outlining the findings of a months-long investigation by UCI officials that held the MSU and its authorized signers guilty of violating university codes of conduct, including disturbing the peace, obstructing university activities, disorderly and lewd conduct, and furnishing false information. The letter was obtained by the Jewish Federation Orange County and released by the university on Monday.
During the Feb. 8 university-sponsored speech at campus student center, Oren was repeatedly heckled and called a “war criminal” by protesters. UCI officials warned the protesters to stop, but the interruptions continued and campus police arrested 11 students — eight from UCI, including the MSU president, and three from the UC Riverside.
Subsequent to the event, MSU spokespeople insisted that the students had acted on their own volition, but the university’s disciplinary committee found that the group had “planned, orchestrated and coordinated” the protests. Evidence came from social networking sites and personal observations by university officials, and students revealed what administrators called a “detailed game plan” for disrupting Oren’s speech that identified “disruptors,” including those willing to disrupt Oren regardless of campus police response, and created “scripted statements” that some hecklers read from index cards. Group members also were told to deny MSU involvement, according to the evidence.
Prior to the event, MSU leaders had been told by UCI officials not to engage in activities that would disrupt Oren’s speech.
The MSU has been ordered to cease operations from Sept. 1, 2010 to Aug. 31, 2011, and its members must also collectively perform 50 hours of community service. The group will be permitted to re-register in fall 2011, provided that all disciplinary measures are complete. No members of the group’s current executive board may act as an authorized signer for any other student group during the suspension.
UCI has been the site of ongoing anti-Israel activity. Despite repeated calls by Jewish advocacy groups to the university to censure the MSU for demonizing Israel and bringing speakers espousing anti-Semitism to campus, the university had previously insisted that the MSU’s activities constitute free speech.
UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky called the decision “consistent with what the university has done all along, noting that the MSU’s actions in this case were not protected by the First
Amendment but rather were clear violations of campus conduct codes.
“This distinction makes all the difference in the world,” Chemerinsky said.
“The important thing is to strike a balance. What they did needs to be punished. There needs to be a clear message that what they did was unacceptable, without being draconian. A one-year suspension strikes a balance.”
A leader of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, rejected what he described as the university’s “politically motivated” decision, arguing that the students were expressing their right to free speech on what they feel is a grave humanitarian plight in the Middle East.
“The process seems to be selective in terms of who is the target of such disciplinary action,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s L.A. chapter. “The recommendation sends the message that Israel is an off-limits topic. It seems that if people are willing to criticize or challenge Israeli policies, they should expect an excessive application of university rules.”
UCI spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said that the suspension will not go into effect until all appeals are exhausted and due process is complete. Since the suspension is scheduled to begin Sept. 1, she said the appeals may be resolved before that time. Lawhon would not comment on disciplinary hearings against the eight UCI students arrested, citing privacy laws.
Rabbi Aron Hier, director of campus outreach at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, urged university officials to continue this important first step by monitoring the activities of student groups that promote hate. The suspension comes in the wake of what he called a “meltdown in the UC system,” in which racist acts were perpetrated on several UC campuses this past semester, and efforts by officials to prevent their reoccurrence. UCI administrators will attend a one-day seminar at the Center’s Museum of Tolerance this summer, Hier said.
Jordan Fruchtman, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, said that while students may protest the MSU’s suspension when they return in the fall, he hopes that the absence of the group’s anti-Israel agenda will foster relations between Muslim and Jewish students.
“When it comes to Israel, it’s often hard to find moderate Muslims with varying degrees of opinion,” Fruchtman said. “I’m hopeful that what happened in suspending the MSU could give rise to more of a moderate Muslim voice or student group based on the values of Islam that separates hatred of Israel to another group so we can have relations with Muslim students on campus.”