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Not all protests are equal. Some fall within the grounds of legitimate demonstration and freedom of speech, and some violate other people’s rights. The issue of protests at universities and other arenas involving students and young people has understandably always been a sensitive subject, particularly after the outrages of police and military suppression of Vietnam War-era demonstrations. Since then, however, lawmakers and broad sections of the public have agreed that a protest which itself involves suppressing another person’s right to freedom of speech—whether during a public event, speech, or debate—is wrong. That, at least, was the recent verdict by an Orange County jury concerning a protest by a Muslim student group during a speech in February 2010 by Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, at the University of California Irvine’s Law School.
The jury ruled that students had conspired to disrupt Oren’s speech to the extent that he could no longer continue, and as a result their actions amounted to a criminal conspiracy. The judge proceeded to sentence the “Irvine 11” to three years of probation and 56 hours of community service. Throughout the trial and immediately after the verdict, supporters of the ten students convicted—including from representatives of the Council on American-Islamic relations—have accused the case of being politicized and a symbol of rising Islamophobia in America. In defending freedom of speech and rights to protest, it is of paramount importance not to single out or put the spotlight on specific communities or groups, particularly surrounding such a highly-charged issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless this well-publicized case gets to the heart of how a potentially legitimate protest can go too far and infringe on the rights of other people.
Last week’s action by Harvard effectively to curtail a live protest against the return of NROTC on campus, and to organize an official NROTC protest at a later time, offers an example in the other direction of how authorities can go too far in clamping down on student protests. As members of a vibrant campus community where so much potential for frank dialogue exists, no one should be in the business of suppressing open and free expression or conversation. Just as Harvard’s administration should not have tried to restrict the vigorousness of protest on our campus, students at Irvine should not be in the business of preventing a visitor from making his case.
This goes to the heart of why this particular protest was misguided. Indeed, many of those present might very well have agreed with a coherent expression of their opposition to Oren or Israel, but were instead treated to what the court decided was a periodic, loud disruption of the speech. Also disconcerting was the reaction of the defending protesters, who instead of taking responsibility for their actions and acknowledging that they had clearly committed a crime, instead chose to pass themselves off to the court and public as First Amendment martyrs.
This protest smacked of self-righteousness and was counterproductive, similar to how David H. Petraeus’ speech was drowned out by protesters during an appearance at Georgetown in January, 2010. In the end, the Irvine 11 only managed to get themselves ejected from the speech one by one, and in the end did not succeed in stopping Oren’s speech and did not manage to challenge his points in a legitimate debate. That would have been a more compelling mode of opposition. As it was, the protesters violated the rights of both the speaker and his audience, and, like others who perform similar acts, can only accept responsibility for their acts, especially when pre-meditated.
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