Protecting the Dignity of Discourse on Campus

In early 2010, the disruption of talks by major officials was all the rage on university campuses, even as these outbursts inspired greater measures of outrage amongst the broader student body. In January, General David H. Petraeus was repeatedly shouted down by student anti-war protesters during a speech to a packed Gaston Hall at Georgetown University. In response, organizations across campus—from the Georgetown University Student Union to the Georgetown Democrats—condemned the conduct. The next month, Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren was similarly assailed, this time by 11 members of the Muslim Student Union at UC-Irvine. The interruptions of “war criminal” and “mass murderer,” which prevented the ambassador from addressing an assembled audience of hundreds, were harshly condemned by the university administration, and the MSU was subsequently suspended as a campus organization.

But what seemed like a typical story of an overheated campus culture clash took an unusual turn after emails among the MSU’s membership surfaced indicating that the Irvine disruptions were carefully coordinated by the group to prevent the ambassador from speaking—a premeditated plan that involved staggered disruptions by predetermined individuals with cue cards, all directed via text messages. In light of this evidence, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas convened an investigatory grand jury and then leveled charges against the so-called “Irvine 11,” bringing the campus controversy into the California courts. Arraigned this past Friday, the students each pled not guilty to misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting.

To understand why this prosecution is justified, and indeed similar future prosecutions of campus disruptors are warranted, one must first understand what this prosecution is not.

It is decidedly not an “absolute affront to the Constitution” that will “inhibit the free exchange of ideas,” as Dan Stormer and Jacqueline Goodman, two of the Irvine defense attorneys, have claimed. It is their clients who sought to inhibit the free exchange of ideas by shouting down Oren’s speech, preventing him and the estimated crowd of 500-700 individuals from exercising their rights to free speech and assembly.

In fact, when viewed through the lens of pragmatism rather than partisanship, the prosecution of these disruptors clearly protects our civil discourse. Imagine, for contrast, a campus climate in which it is possible for any sufficiently motivated group to shut down an event to which it is ideologically opposed. Not only would Ambassador Oren and General Petraeus be shouted off the stage, but Nancy Pelosi would be accosted with cries of “baby killer,” while Omar Barghouti, who spoke recently at Harvard to advocate boycott of Israel, could be met with jeers of “terrorist” and “anti-semite.” It is essential for the preservation of considered campus conversation that such suppressive “speech” never be tolerated, no matter the opinion being espoused. Simply put, no partisan should have a vocal veto over the marketplace of ideas.

Beyond the practical necessity of such prosecution, there is also strong legal justification for it. As Professor Eugene Volokh of UCLA, a renowned free speech expert explains, “California law rightly makes it a crime to interfere with people’s rights to speak, and listeners’ rights to listen.” Volokh is a long-time equal opportunity advocate for First Amendment rights, having defended flag-burning, anti-Israel bus advertisements and even the permissibility of voluntarily-assumed Sharia arbitration on U.S. soil. To him, the Irvine case is not an example of individuals exercising free speech but rather attempting to stifle it. “Of course, the defendants have their own free speech rights,” he says. “They could have freely exercised them outside the meeting. They could have exercised them during Q&A … They could have exercised them by staging their own event. But First Amendment law has long recognized that there’s no right to speak so loudly that it interferes with other people’s activity.”

Countering a misconception, Volokh adds that “while a jail term is theoretically available” if the defendants are found guilty, “it will be highly unlikely for first offenders.” Rather, “in a case such as this, the defendants …  will be fined, put on probation, and possibly sentenced to some community service.” And that, he concludes, “sounds like about the right punishment.”

Of course, prosecution is a last resort only to be employed when students themselves are unable to respect the opinions of others and the rights of their fellow students. Ideally, even the most impassioned groups would choose to engage in dialogue rather than diatribe. But for those partisan purists not dissuaded by the pragmatic and legal consequences of Irvine-esque conduct, there remains one final objection to such tactics: they don’t work. At Georgetown, the ejection of anti-war protesters was met with sustained applause and the disruptions were condemned across the campus political spectrum. At UC-Irvine, the student group responsible was suspended, and the administration left angry and embarrassed. These reactions are unsurprising: the arrogance of those who seek to override the free speech prerogatives of others alienates rather than attracts people to their cause. The assumption that one’s viewpoint is so self-evidently correct that the rights of others can be trampled to trumpet it proves predictably counterproductive, as self-righteousness so often does. Student groups interested in actual influence ought to take note and save their objections for the Q&A.

Too often, we forget that freedom of speech is largely about silence. The dignity of discourse in America stems not merely from the right of each individual to speak freely, but from those who might vehemently disagree making space for that person to express themselves. Our universities ought to be models for this mutually respectful conversation, not where it is in constant danger. With that in mind, let us make the Irvine prosecution into a teaching moment about the nature of our nation’s most fundamental freedoms. And let us be reminded what we owe each other as Americans, even—or especially—in the confines of our college campuses.

Yair Rosenberg ’11, a Crimson Arts associate editor, is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Adams House.

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