‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties’

‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties’

After watching a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7w96UR79TBw) of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s appearance at the University of California at Irvine on Feb. 8, I phoned the university. What actions, if any, I wondered, were being taken against the people who disrupted the ambassador’s presentation? I was put in touch with Cathy Lawhon, director of media relations for UCI, with whom I had a cordial and frank exchange.

Ms. Lawhon, who attended the event, echoed the dismay expressed on the video by other university officials. She said that campus police detained the transgressors for an hour after they exited the auditorium. She was uncertain whether further law enforcement action would be taken, though a student discipline board would be reviewing the cases. The board’s recommendations, and ultimately the decision by the university’s chancellor, Michael Drake, could range from the issuing of warnings to probation, suspension, expulsion – or taking no further action.

She is aware that the Irvine campus has a reputation for being especially permissive to Muslim activism that is harshly anti-Israel. The activists’ words and actions against Israel have sometimes been detestable, she acknowledged, but have been permitted under the cover of free speech. Further, she believes the activism at UCI is no different from that on other UC campuses, specifically UCLA and Berkeley. Irvine receives special attention, she said, because it is in conservative Orange County.

While disruptions of pro-Israel speakers have occurred at UCI in the past, according to Ms. Lawhon, they had not been as blatantly hostile toward the speaker as on Feb. 8. Typically, she said, individuals might ostentatiously wear tape over their mouths, turn their backs on a speaker, or walk out during the presentation. Nor were those disruptions, in her view, especially well organized.

This time, the disturbances were pointedly hostile and obviously orchestrated. She seemed to feel betrayed, since university officials had contacted the campus Muslim student organization in advance of Mr. Oren’s appearance. They had sought and received assurances from the group that there would be no disturbances, and certainly no organized disruption.

Ms. Lawhon mentioned that UCI, like other UC campuses (and other schools), has permitted annual programs during Palestinian Awareness Week. The anti-Israel rhetoric at those events often has been repugnant, and she wonders if those excesses should still be permitted. (I am aware of banners at Palestinian Awareness Week events that have referred to Israel as “the Fourth Reich” and Israelis as “Zio-Nazis.” Would these campuses tolerate signs denying the Holocaust? Or advocating the reinstitution of black slavery?) She and other university personnel of good will are clearly struggling to find a proper balance between censorship and “free speech.”

It is time to ratchet back the notion that discourtesy, let alone disruption, is permissible during a campus presentation by a legitimately invited speaker. Yes, this also covers rogues like Iranian President Ahmadinejad who spoke at Columbia University in 2007. In my opinion he never should have been a guest there or at any other respectable venue. But once invited, like all guests, he was entitled to speak without interruption – and submit to questions and comments afterwards.

Courtesy to a speaker precludes not only vile behavior as by Mr. Oren’s Muslim provocateurs, but of the lesser sort that Cathy Lawhon also referenced – taped mouths, disdainful gestures, and the like. If you disagree with a speaker’s position, challenge it during Q-and-A, promote your views elsewhere, or just stay home.

Mr. Oren’s provocateurs were emboldened because lesser discourtesies on that campus had previously gone unpunished. UCI, the rest of the California college system, and schools everywhere should make known that students may not make a mockery of free speech by denying it to others. Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties that are certain and meaningful. Detaining someone for an hour is hardly likely to discourage repeat infractions. Lengthy suspension, if not expulsion, for such uncivilized behavior should be assured.

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