Double Standard Watch: Rights of the speaker versus ‘rights’ of disruptors

Recently Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, who is an academic historian and a political moderate, was invited to speak at the University of California at Irvine. I know Michael well and have heard him speak many times. He is one of Israel’s most effective advocates, particularly on university campuses. He speaks about peace, about the two-state solution and he brings a historical perspective to his analysis. Because he is so effective, anti-Israel zealots try to prevent him from speaking and his audience from hearing his views.

That’s exactly what happened at the University of California at Irvine when Oren began to speak. This tactic of censorship will be tried at other universities as well, if it is permitted to succeed.

Let there be no doubt about it, these radical anti-Israel zealots are trying to censor Michael Oren. After repeatedly disrupting his speech and making it impossible for him to continue, eleven of them were arrested and now face possible disciplinary action from the University of California, a public institution.

They and their supporters now claim that it is the eleven disruptors whose right of free speech is being violated. They are threatening legal action to defend their right to prevent a speaker from expressing his views and an audience from hearing those views. This is a topsy turvy view of the First Amendment.

It is true that an individual heckler may have the right to shout in opposition to a speaker, so long as his shouted words are brief and non-recurrent. But any fair viewing of the videotape, available on YouTube, proves beyond any doubt that this was a concerted effort to silence Michael Oren and to prevent his audience from hearing his point of view. The university was correctly embarrassed at this attempt at censorship.

I too speak on college campuses, trying to make the moderate, two-state solution case on behalf of Israel. My speeches have been greeted with shouts of disapproval and efforts to silence me. When I spoke last year at the University of Massachusetts, a similar effort was made to prevent me from expressing my view. I refused to remain silent and I simply shouted over the ruckus. Eventually the University had to end the event. When I spoke at the University of California at Irvine several years earlier, there was also some heckling, but there was no coordinated effort to stop me from speaking. Similar groups have succeeded in preventing other pro-Israel speakers, including Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and its current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from speaking.

These attempts to prevent college audiences from hearing pro-Israel speakers must be taken very seriously by universities. As Michael Oren explained in the beginning of his talk, universities are places where full and complete freedom of speech must be given a high priority. Freedom of speech does permit the right of audience members to express views different from a speaker, so long as they obey reasonable rules and do not prevent the speaker from expressing his or her views. Reasonable rules include permitting the holding of signs, so long as they do not block anyone’s view, the handing out of leaflets, an opportunity to ask questions at the end of the talk and sporadic and non-recurrent booing or shouting of brief comments

I have defended students who have been subjected to discipline for shouting a single word, for holding a sign or for making an obscene gesture. But I would not defend a so-called right of a group of students to act in a coordinated manner in an effort to prevent a speaker from expressing views that the audience is entitled to hear.

There are several rights at stake in any such case. First is the right of the speaker, who has been invited by the university to present his point of view. Second is the right of the audience to hear his point of view. Third is the right of audience members who disagree with his point of view to express opposition. These rights need not be in conflict, so long as there is no effort to prevent the speaker from conveying his point of view to the audience.

From what I saw on the videotape, it seemed clear that there was a coordinated effort of censorship, and not merely an exercise of free speech by audience members who disagreed with what Oren was saying. If such a coordinated effort at censorship is established by the evidence, then discipline is warranted.