UC Irvine officials recently recommended a one-year suspension for the Muslim Student Union, the group that appears to have been behind the disruption of a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on the campus in February. It's an apt punishment for what was clearly an inappropriate protest, although it will satisfy neither conservative politicians such as Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), who wrote a letter to the university's chancellor urging that the group be permanently banned, nor defenders of the Muslim group, who think the students were only exercising their free-speech rights.
Oren had been invited to deliver an address on U.S.-Israeli relations. But each time he tried to speak, he was interrupted by students who stood up to shout anti- Israel slogans. Eleven students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside were arrested and cited for disturbing a public event, but not criminally charged. According to a university report released Monday, e-mails intercepted from members of the Muslim Student Union showed that it had not only planned the protest, but that its members had also subsequently conspired to deny the group's involvement. It was the group's alleged fabrications, along with its disruption of university activities, that prompted the suspension recommendation.
The notion that UC Irvine is squelching students' 1st Amendment rights is simple to dismiss. U.S. courts have long held that using speech to prevent another person from speaking, as the Muslim students were clearly doing, is not constitutionally protected. As long as UC Irvine enforces its rules in an evenhanded way against protesters of all points of view — so that members of a pro-Zionist group would be similarly punished for shouting down a Palestinian speaker — it is well within its rights to enforce decorum at campus events. At the same time, harsher penalties such as criminal charges or permanently revoking recognition of the Muslim group would be inappropriate for this kind of nonviolent protest.
We agree entirely with UC Irvine's chancellor, Michael Drake, who noted between the fourth and fifth disruption of Oren's speech that "there is no university without a free exchange of ideas" and that the behavior of the protesters was "antithetical to everything we stand for and everything we are."
U.S. politicians in both parties tend to reflexively support Israeli policies, so there is less public debate about them here than in most countries, including Israel. Universities are among the few places where a lively discussion of such politically taboo topics takes place, and it would be a disservice to students and faculty members to chill that debate or to permanently silence the Muslim Student Union. If officials go ahead with the suspension, it will give the group's members a year to learn an important lesson about the difference between acceptable protest and counterproductive disruption.