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Monday, September 26, 2011

The Irvine 11

Our chapter on civil liberties discusses controversial cases involving freedom of expression. In the recent "Irvine 11" case, both the defense and prosecution made free-speech arguments. Inside Higher Ed reports:

After a rare prosecution related to a campus protest, 10 Muslim students who are Palestine supporters were found guilty of misdemeanors Friday for heckling the Israeli ambassador to the United States when he spoke at the University of California at Irvine.


“It seems as if the rules have been rewritten,” said Jarret Lovell, a professor of politics at California State University at Fullerton, who has studied and written on protest. He said he sees universities as a place for trial and error, where students can try to apply civics lessons in practice -- even if the result is rude and, as he described the interruptions, “absolutely silly.”


[D]uring the speech, 11 students, some from Irvine and others from the University of California at Riverside, repeatedly interrupted, rising one at a time to shout criticism of Israel and drawing applause from others in the crowd. (A video distributed by a pro-Israel group documented the interruptions.) Officials pleaded with the audience, both before the speech and after the interruptions, to let Oren continue; he did so, but ended his speech before a scheduled question-and-answer session.

The university condemned the heckling. While the protesters argued that theirs was a case of academic freedom and free expression, most campus policies defend the right to protest outside a talk, or to ask critical questions afterward, but not the right to interrupt repeatedly.

After an investigation that found that the Muslim Student Union had organized the protest, Irvine officials suspended the group for a quarter -- an unusual step, since college officials rarely discipline political or religious groups. And while the university then considered the matter settled, the Orange County district attorney decided to proceed with a trial, charging all 11 students with two misdemeanors: conspiracy to disrupt a public speech, and disrupting it. The prosecution argued that the students acted as censors by disrupting the speech. The defense countered that the protests were legal and the prosecution infringed on the students' rights, emphasizing that the students' comments took up a small fraction of Oren's 30-minute speech.

Some who had criticized the students’ actions, including Lovell, said taking the case to a jury was going too far and could have a “muting effect” both on student activism and on universities’ willingness to invite speakers who could be controversial.

Others, including the president of the Israel on Campus coalition, said the verdict was important for academic freedom and sent a message that shouting speakers down would not be tolerated.

“It was an important vindication of the right of academic institutions and communities to protect academic freedom and academic integrity,” said Stephen Kuperberg, president of the coalition, which has not taken an official position on the case. “The court reached the appropriate verdict.”