Jewish Journal

A First Amendment Lesson

by David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks

February 16, 2010 | 4:39 pm

As long-time civil rights veterans, we have been around the block a few times with colleagues who appeared committed to the work of bettering civil dialogue in our country. The platitudes about getting along and tolerating opinions one doesn’t like are easy to mouth and come trippingly off lots of tongues; actually adhering to the precepts of tolerance and civil dialogue is a lot less easy.

Invariably, those who don’t really believe what they say are undone by their actions. They will commit to Voltaire’s dictum (“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”) in the abstract, but will falter when confronted with someone they disagree with—-usually offering a lame excuse as to why this or that activist should be muzzled or shouted down.

A long-time colleague who has done service on a variety of “civil rights” and “free speech” panels and commissions, Salaam al Marayati, the LA-based national head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (“MPAC”) proved, once again, our rule of “true colors” ultimately coming out.

Last week, MPAC issued a bizarre press release justifying political extremists who assaulted the First Amendment and civil dialogue in our community.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Irvine. He was invited by the UCI Law School and UCI’s Political Science Department to deliver a lecture and then offer himself to questions from the audience.

Prior to the lecture, the members of the Muslim Student Association at UCI “condemned and strongly opposed” the presence of Oren on the UCI campus (parenthetically, they did it “In the Name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful”). They “strongly condemn the university for cosponsoring, and therefore, inadvertently (sic) supporting the ambassador of a state that is condemned….. Oren and his partners

should only be granted a speakers platform in the International Criminal Court

and should not be honored on our campus.”

At the lecture, eleven students (eight from UCI and three from UC Riverside) acted out their commitment to keeping Oren’s voice off campus; they interrupted his speech on ten separate occasions in a vain effort to prevent him from speaking.

In the words of UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, “they shouted him down.” Campus police escorted each protestor out of the auditorium and then arrested them for disturbing a public event.

Now comes al Marayati and MPAC to argue that the tactics employed by the students, that of the “heckler’s veto” (i.e. shouting down those with whom you disagree) is really just an “exercise in free speech….these students had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression, using peaceful means….we cannot allow our educational institutions to be used as a platform to threaten and discourage students who choose to practice their First Amendment right.” MPAC then urged the UCI chancellor not to punish the Muslim students for “peacefully voicing their opposition.”

MPAC and al Marayati fail to understand the most rudimentary elements of what free speech and the First Amendment are all about. Shouting down a speaker with whom you disagree does not demonstrate “courage and conscience,” nor is it “a practice of First Amendment right(s).” It is the very antithesis of the First Amendment—-it demonstrates disdain and contempt for those who came to hear the speaker.

As Dean Chemerinsky has rightly asserted, “

there is no right to a heckler’s veto.

” If there were, the First Amendment’s notion of the free marketplace of ideas (usually an especially valued principle on university campuses) would be meaningless—-the loudest most raucous voices would be the only ones heard.

To add insult to injury, Ambassador Oren and his hosts made clear before the speech that there would be a question and answer session following his presentation—-had the MSA leaders wanted to confront him with their challenges, there was a time and a place for that exchange.

It is clear that MPAC and its leadership now want to intimidate UCI’s leadership into acquiescing to the breach of campus rules and drop all charges against the student thugs. MPAC’s press release in effect says we should be grateful that the students used “peaceful means.” One can only shudder when thinking of what actions might have been taken that wouldn’t have been peaceful.

UCI is an educational institution and these students need an education. One invaluable rule of life that applies to everyone in a democracy, especially young people, is that actions have consequences. The conscious decision to disrupt and harass a guest speaker on a university campus, after being admonished not to engage in such conduct, and to deny others the right to hear a guest speaker demands a response; a response that resonates on other campuses—-

this conduct is not acceptable


UCI is not an isolated case; an Aljazeera.net blogger proudly describes the phenomenon of disruption that has become an MSA tactic:

But by in large, what is making me take notice is how pro-Palestinian students seem to be growing more vocal and organized with their frustrations.

It’s a phenomena (sic) that seems to have caught the Israelis off guard.  When Oren’s appeal for Middle East-like hospitality failed, Oren jousted: “

This is not London or Tehran!

He must have been clairvoyant.  Across the Pond at Oxford Union on that same day, it was not exactly going swimmingly for Deputy Foreign Minister Dann Ayalon, trying also to lay down a rote defense of Israel.

Students there also used timed interruptions, and apparently racist invectives, to upset their Israeli guest

Only if the UCI administration stands firm and demonstrates a commitment to the First Amendment—and the right of students to hear diverse and even controversial voices—-will we be assured that we don’t become “London or Tehran.” Perhaps, MPAC and its leadership will learn that free speech and civil discourse applies to everyone.

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