After enduring a disputably legitimate trial, ten students were convicted in September of disrupting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at the University of California, Irvine last February.
This came as no surprise: in an unprecedented move last year, the UCI administration issued a binding recommendation to ban a registered student group for that same offense, convicting the students of a flippant breach of the university’s free speech code. The decision was issued amid allegations that the administration silenced the group, the Muslim Student Union, to placate fuming off-campus pro-Israel groups, who had long been voicing their opposition to the MSU and its activities.
The four-month investigation culminated in a punishment that is rarely applied and traditionally reserved for extreme cases of hazing and alcohol abuse: MSU is the first registered student group to be banned at UCI, ever.
What compelled the administration to send down such a heavy-handed verdict that would not only stifle campus life but also put out a widespread chilling warning about the boundaries of free speech on university campuses?
Oren set the stage for what would become a first-amendment battleground on February 8th of last year when he was disrupted by eleven students, who would be later arrested and christened as the “Irvine 11.” These students likely thought they would wear that arrest like a student activist’s badge of honor, but were soon made an example of by the administration and its influential friends, and learned that there is a high price to pay for dissent against Israel.
The protest was clearly intended to disrupt Oren and stall his speech. The section on free speech and advocacy in UCI’s student conduct code states protests must not infringe on anyone’s right “to teach, study and fully exchange ideas”.
The “Irvine 11” are now first amendment poster children, but it seems that this was not the case at hand anyway. The students claim they acted as individuals, but evidence provided to the university by an anonymous source includes intercepted MSU listserv emails that suggest that the protests were organized by the MSU. University officials maintain that it is not just the protest that landed the MSU in deep waters, but the fact that they denied involvement in it. A closer look at the long history of several external organizations’ interest in the MSU however, suggests there are more powerful forces at play here.
Why is it so alarming that the MSU was banned? Protests are commonplace and controversy is tradition at university campuses. Disrupting a speaker doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of offense a student would face criminal charges for, or for which a registered group of over 250 students would be collectively punished. The MSU organizes more than 300 events annually for its members and for the larger campus community. Most events promote interfaith dialogue, humanitarian efforts and spiritual learning.