Thursday, February 10, 2011

Professors act to make sure that a free exchange of ideas won't happen on their campus

Several months ago Muslim students at UC Irvine rudely disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. Orange County prosecutors are charging the students with two misdemeanor counts, including conspiracy to disrupt the speech. If convicted, the penalty could be up to six months in jail.

Here is a reminder of what the students did to disrupt the speech.
The students came up with the following plan. They had been told that if they interrupted the speech, they would be arrested for disturbing a public event, so the students went sequentially, each interrupting the Ambassador once. Each student would stand up in the middle of the speech and start screaming out condemnation, which would trigger the wild applause of many other students in the audience. The student would then walk to the aisle to be arrested and escorted out by campus police. Once the Ambassador started again, the next student would go, resulting in a total of 10 interruptions to the speech and arrests of 11 students, 8 from UC Irvine and 3 from UC Riverside.
However, a group of 100 faculty members are asking the Orange County D.A. not to charge the students.
The decision to charge the students, the faculty letter says, “sets a dangerous precedent for the use of the criminal law against nonviolent protests on campus.”

It goes on to argue the charges are harmful and divisive to the school and risk “undoing the healing process” after widespread debate erupted following the protest and the decision to temporarily suspend the group.

“I think there was a great deal of dismay that the DA was reviving what we thought had been a closed chapter in the university’s history,” said UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener.

The district attorney has argued that the students organized to squelch the speaker in clear violation of the law. The students are set to be arraigned March 11 in Santa Ana.
Isn't that precious? They want to forget about the episode so that seems enough for them to plead that the students be forgiven.

The students consciously came up with a plan to disrupt the speech knowing that they risked being arrested. If they had any doubt, they could see what happened each time one of them came up to microphone to scream out against the ambassador. This was their choice. And when protesters choose such tactics, they know the risks and should accept the consequences.

If the professors who seem more worried about the students get what they knew was coming to them achieve their goal, then they're just paving the way for more disruptions to deny speakers the chance to communicate to UC Irvine students. Is that their goal? Do they care at all about ensuring that students at their university can engage in a free exchange of ideas or hear from controversial speakers. I wonder if they would be so concerned if it had been Jewish students arrested for disrupting the speech of a Muslim ambassador. Or if it had been tea party students disrupting an invited speech by a Democratic congressman.

This is not a question of freedom of speech. There are time, place, and manner restrictions on free speech. Eugene Volokh explains the relevant California law that these students were violating. This is, however, a question of civility and consequences for breaking the law. These 100 professors just want to sweep the whole incident under the rug in the name of a mythical "healing process." Of course, if they are successful, all they will have guaranteed is more such disruptions, not more healing.