Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Professor Mark LeVine Comments on the UCI Fiasco-and My Response

Another member of UC-Irvine's faculty has written on the February 8th disruption at UC-Irvine when the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to speak. Professor Mark LeVine teaches in the UCI Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies department at UCI. Professor LeVine is an advocate for the Palestinian cause and a year or so ago, brought a spokesman for the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood to speak at UCI. I attended that event and reported on it on Fousesquawk. This article appears on the George Mason University History News Network.

Shouting Down the Israeli Ambassador Boneheaded? Perhaps...Illegal? Not so Fast

By Mark A. LeVine

Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, 2009). A shorter version of this piece appeared in the LA Times.

"The outburst by eleven UC students against Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren has generated a firestorm of condemnation of their actions, including from UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, whose credentials as a defender of free speech rights are unassailable.

Quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dean Chemerinsky argued that "there was no right to falsely shout 'fire' in a crowded theater." Moreover, he rightly pointed out that government, including public universities, have the right to regulate speech on campus, particularly because freedom of speech would be "rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree... There is simply no First Amendment right to go into an auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message."

A Heckler's Veto?

As well articulated as this argument is, do the comparisons used actually reflect the situation at hand? Is vigorous and organized, yet clearly limited, protest really the equivalent of "shouting fire in a crowded theater"? Did the students ultimately prevent Ambassador Oren from being heard? Is there really no room for "disruption" of any length or style at a talk by an Ambassador of a country embroiled in a contentious decades long conflict?

In fact, the students' actions, and the reaction by the audience, university, and police, are far more complicated than they might appear on the surface and challenge the assumption by most people that they crossed a clear boundary of acceptable protest and deserve whatever fate is handed to them by the University and even the District Attorney. Several issues in particular raise troubling questions surrounding how the university police, and administration more broadly, handled the event and its aftermath.

First, there is the question of the level of disturbance caused by the students. Ambassador Oren was scheduled to speak and answer audience questions for one and a half hours. The protests by the students were clearly aimed to disrupt his speech, but it's just as clear that they were not trying to scuttle it. Each outburst seems to have lasted under one minute, after which the student left voluntarily. In total, eleven out of ninety minutes were taken up by the protests. Even with the twenty minute break that Oren took during the protest, he was, as Chancellor Drake pointed out in his condemnation of their actions the next day, able to finish his speech. There was also time for audience questions had he chosen to take them.

These facts raise the question of whether, as many university officials and commentators, including Dean Chemerinsky, have argued, the actions of the students constituted a "heckler's veto" and therefore crossed the line between acceptable and prohibited protest. To begin with, the use of this term is questionable, as it has, as a rule, referred not to protesters shouting down a speaker at a gathering but rather to government or other officials canceling or prohibiting a speech or gathering out of fear of the protests it might generate.

Even if we accept the implications of the term, the assertion that the students' actions constituted a veto over Ambassador Oren's right to be speak is debatable. If forty or some similarly large number of students engaged in the action rather than eleven, Ambassador Oren would have been unable to complete his speech and the protest would have thereby crossed the line of acceptable speech. But this was not the case. However uncivil or even obnoxious one might consider the protest, by design (rather than because of the actions of police or university officials to stop them) they did not continue long enough to prevent him ultimately from being heard.

Given the heated nature of Israeli-Palestinian debates on campuses today, one could look at the rough and tumble of the students' protest here and, quoting a basketball analogy often used in the last two minutes of an important game, declare: "No harm, no foul," or at least not a flagrant one.

It is true, as Dean Chemerinsky notes in his op-ed, that universities have the right to limit the free speech rights on campus to a greater extent than is normally allowed in the public sphere. But, at least at UCI, there are no firm guidelines on what those limits are. When I enquired I was referred by a UCI spokesperson to the UCI Dean of Students' Handbook on Campus Policies. But that document offers little guidance to judge whether the protests against Oren's speech crossed the line. Section 30.00, which deals with free speech, does not define any limits to speech beyond the broad statement that the "University is committed to assuring that all persons may exercise the constitutionally protected rights of free expression, speech, assembly, and worship," and that protests "must not, however, interfere with the University's obligation to protect rights of all to teach, study, and fully exchange ideas."

Without a clear ban in place beforehand on the type and style of protest in which they engaged, it is hard to see how they could fairly be subject to severe punishment by the university for their protest, never mind arrest and potential prosecution.

Indeed, this criminalization of dissenting speech is the most troubling part of the whole affair. It is impossible for me to see how university police or the administration can justify arresting these students after they voluntarily left the room and made no efforts to return. Who made this decision? What reading of which law were they using to determine that students who make short protests and voluntarily leave an auditorium can be arrested?

The students clearly constituted no threat to the speaker or the audience--in fact, the video of the event clearly demonstrates that the audience engaged in far more obnoxious behavior than the students, using racial/religious epithets against them and even accosting several of them. Despite the students' pointing this out to police at the time, no audience members were removed from the hall, let alone arrested.

Moreover, previous campus protests, such as against UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, have resulted in students being removed from the auditorium by police after shouting him down during a talk, but no further disciplinary or legal actions were taken against them. Together, these facts raise serious issues of equity in the application of already vague university regulations and laws.

And even with the arrest, it is unfathomable that the District Attorney would use already limited government resources to prosecute the students for their actions. Yet, to date, there is no indication that they will not face prosecution. But on what basis?

An Undue Limitation on Legitimate Protest?

University officials sent an email to the entire student body in the aftermath of the event that warned students that any such protests would be considered illegal and create "a very serious situation." Specifically, they informed them that "if anyone 'without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character' they can be charged with a misdemeanor under California Penal Code §403. Other penal codes can apply as well."

I am proud that my colleagues in the UCI administration have fought long and hard to protect academic freedom on campus against concerted efforts to diminish it. Yet, while it's not the intention of the university, it seems to me that this email could have a chilling effect on free speech, particularly because there is no attempt to define what "willfully disturbs" an event means. This opens to the door for arresting students for even the slightest disruption of an event.

Imagine how a 19-year-old student would react to being told that he can go to prison and face expulsion from the university merely for engaging in vigorous protest against a speaker who supports enforced genital mutilation of women, the execution of homosexuals or other unpopular policies. Or more to the point, who represented a state that engaged in these practices.

If you were that student, what would you do the next time someone was speaking at the university whose views you strongly disagreed with? Would you risk crossing an undefined line and thereby put your future in jeopardy, or would you stay silent? And what does this environment do to the university's role as a place where boundaries, ideas and actions can be explored? Some of the most creative and impactful protests in history have been extremely theatrical and disruptive. Should students be forbidden from exploring these forms of protest?

And it would seem professors are equally at risk. For example, if a pro-Hamas speaker was coming to campus and Jewish students came to me for advice on how to respond to him, I might well--before now--have suggested they do a die-in at his talk. Put on paper masks of Israelis killed in suicide bombings and come to the front of the hall, say the name and date they were killed, and fall to the floor. Perhaps even have themselves carried out to emphasize the point.

Until now, I would have assumed that as long as this didn't prohibit him from finishing his talk and was non-violent, this would not only be acceptable, but also highly effective and even pedagogical. It would force those who blithely support the right to resist through terror to confront the faces of the victims the actions they support produce. Yet it would now seem that my advice might well be illegal, and lead my arrest, prosecution and even revocation of my tenure, along with the suspension or expulsion and prosecution of the students who staged the protest.

Just as important, this potential criminalization of dissenting speech is not just limited to highly contentious protests surrounding Israel. Students have also been arrested and face harsh disciplinary action across UC for engaging in protests on hot button, but legitimate, issues. Rather than repressing dissent, we should be helping students to find the most creative ways to express it within commonly understood bounds. But making a habit of arresting students for vigorous but non-violent and ultimately limited protest makes this goal that much harder to achieve.

The Missing Ingredient: Power

There is a final issue involved in these protests that Dean Chemerinsky's article did not touch upon, and that is the utter disparity in power between the students and the views they represent, and Ambassador Oren and the government he represents. There is little doubt that the Law School and Political Science Department, who co-sponsored, rightfully saw his presence as a chance to engage an important actor on issues of concern to the UC community.

However, from the Israeli side Ambassador Oren's appearance at UCI was part of an extremely sophisticated, well funded and self-described "propaganda" campaign--known by the Hebrew term "hasbara"--directed by the Israeli government and major American Jewish organizations with the goal of presenting Israel in the most positive light possible on campus.

Oren was speaking at UC Irvine not as an academic presenting research but as an official representative of a government, one of whose jobs is to convince the public at large of the justice of his government's policies. That is one of the most important jobs of an ambassador, but it is based on a very different set of ground rules than that of a scholarly presentation.

In fact, the outrage demonstrated by many (but by no means all) members of the Jewish community at the protests is disingenuous. The World Union of Jewish Students and the Education Department of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization with strong ties to most major Jewish organizations, sponsored the publication in 2002 of a 131 page manual for Israel advocacy titled the Hasbara Handbook, which specifically lists as the first of "seven basic propaganda devices" available for use by activists "name calling," and declares that "for the Israel activist, it is important to be aware of the subtly different meanings that well chosen words give. Call 'demonstrations' 'riots', many Palestinian organizations 'terror organizations', and so on."

It would seem that for members of these groups now to call for the expulsion of the so-called "Irvine 11" and threaten to stop donating money to UCI unless harsh measures are taken is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

A Malfunctioning Public Sphere

In the United States the normative understanding of the public sphere is that everyone has an equal voice and disparities of power and access are naturally checked at the door, allowing all sides on a debate "equal" footing on which to state their case. But the reality, particularly when it comes to debates around Israel, is far more constricted.

The context of the students' rowdy, and to some "uncivil," protest has to be considered in judging their actions. Ambassador Oren represents a state that has engaged in a 43-year long occupation and settlement enterprise; has, as part of this process, committed large scale and systematic violations of the most basic human rights of Palestinians, from land expropriations to extra-judicial killings to numerous war crimes, all of which are amply documented by Israeli Jewish human rights organizations as well as by the US State Department, United Nations and other international organizations.

Yet, despite this record, Israeli officials routinely receive warm official welcome on college campuses across the United States, something its hard to imagine happening with representatives of countries with similar human rights records. Meanwhile, back in the Occupied Territories, not only Palestinians, but foreign activists and even Israeli Jews are routinely arrested, beaten, tear-gassed and shot and killed merely for engaging in non-violent protests against the on-going expropriations of Palestinian land, demolition of homes, uprooting of trees and orchards, and other human rights violations. The students at UCI are fully aware of these facts, because in the last two years they have gone out of their way to bring Jewish and Israeli speakers to campus who've experienced them first hand.

Put this next to the deference generally shown to Israeli officials, the well-documented unwillingness of the mainstream media to challenge Israeli policies or explanations with any regularity, the political clout of pro-Israel groups, and the powerful Hasbara network on campuses, and their rowdy, uncivil protest suddenly makes more sense.

Indeed, against such a powerful bloc of forces, we can ask how already marginalized Muslim students should be expected to protest against the Ambassador's appearance. We can take a less politicized example and ask how marginalized students should be expected to protest crippling tuition increases even as the quality of their educations diminishes against a powerful President who has declared emergency powers and effectively neutralized the long-cherished notion of "shared governance."

How polite should students really be expected to be in this situation? Is demanding that they be 'civil' and 'respectful' itself an infringement on their free speech rights in a situation where speakers who represent powerful and normally untouchable interests or groups--whether foreign governments or the UC Regents, for that matter--routinely deflect troublesome questions, change the subject or in some cases respond with very narrow and even inaccurate answers that the audience has little chance to challenge.

In short, are there situations when marginalized voices have little recourse accept to push the boundaries of polite debate in order to get their messages heard? And if in doing so they ruffle feathers, upset audience members and perhaps even exercise extremely poor tactical and political judgment in their choice of strategies--as the students in this case have so clearly done, since they both deflected attention away from their cause and played into deeply ingrained stereotypes of irrational and unreasonably angry Muslim men--should the University be punishing them and the state prosecuting them?

My hope is that the members of the UCI community can use this event as a teachable moment, coming together as a campus more clearly to define the limits of acceptable protest, to understand the realities behind the passions displayed by the Irvine 11, and to help figure out how to bridge the still gaping chasm that separates Muslim and Jewish students on campus and the communities they represent. Turning UCI into a First Amendment battle ground will likely not achieve these ends and instead will undermine the vigorous and sometimes rowdy given and take that is essentially to the preservation of free speech and academic freedom in the University."


Professor LeVine raises a lot of points, and I don't care to debate each every point. I do want to address a couple of them.

LeVine argues that the actions of the MSU students was not a "heckler's veto" in that Ambassador Oren was able to finish his speech.

After the first few interruptions, it was decided that the ambassador should leave the room. At that time, there was doubt in the minds of the audience (at least mine) whether the ambassador would decide to return and attempt to finish his speech. To the best of my recollection, either Chancellor Drake or Professor Petracca said something about "deciding whether the ambassador can continue" (I don't recall the exact words). I am grateful that the ambassador did continue even in the face of additional disruptions, but it was certainly not clear to all that he would continue. In short, had not the protesters eventually left en masse, it is doubtful that speech would have been completed. That would be a violation of the ambassador's right to free speech and our right to hear him would have been infringed. On this count, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky is absolutely correct that the students were not exercising their "free speech rights".

Next point:

"The students clearly constituted no threat to the speaker or the audience--in fact, the video of the event clearly demonstrates that the audience engaged in far more obnoxious behavior than the students, using racial/religious epithets against them and even accosting several of them. Despite the students' pointing this out to police at the time, no audience members were removed from the hall, let alone arrested."

Professor LeVine raises an issue that must be squarely addressed by both sides. As it was happening, individual actions or words were lost to me in the overall din. Yet, the videos make clear that the audience reacted in an angry and tumultuous manner. There were shouts. A woman made an obscene gesture. A man told students as they were filing out that they were going to "fail their midterms". A few days later, a young female Jewish student told me that she heard racial epithets used. I personally did not hear them, but I take her at her word. As I said, a lot was lost to me in the din. (I made no statements myself to the students.) Were some of the reactions by the audience, clearly angered, inappropriate? Sure.

It is safe to say that everyone who was there that night was angry when they left. The Muslims were angry. The non-Muslim majority of the audience was angry at the disrupters. The audience was also angry at the university-specifically to Chancellor Drake, who at one point, was almost hooted off the stage. The audience demanded to know what the university was going to do about this situation. One elderly Jewish woman was overheard at the end (not by me)saying, "My grandkids are not coming to UCI."

But who instigated the commotion? Clearly, that was the disrupting students.

That leads me to another point. There are many video versions going around showing the disruption -and the audience reaction. It is what it is. One video, which takes the MSU side, shows only the reactions of the audience and not the disruptions that caused them. Selective editing? Sure.

But it gets worse. The opening scene of the video states that the disturbances began before the event began. It then switches to a clip of an older man wearing sunglasses involved in a verbal altercation with a young Muslims student and being separated by a security guard. Actually, I didn't see that, but I won't argue that it didn't happen. Surely it did because the tape is there. However, I can tell you that it only happened after the students began their disruptions. How do I know? I know because I was seated in the hall a full 30 minutes before the event began. There was no disturbance of any kind. The MSU members entered long after I did. Nothing untoward happened until the speech began and the first student stood and disrupted the speech.

In that vein, I should (once again) point out the reaction to the event by the anti-Semitic website La Voz de Aztlan. They showed a video of the event and focused on the woman making the obscene "arm salute" referring to her as "a Jewess".

The so-called Jewish professor with the yarmulka (aptly pointed out by La Voz de Aztlan) was featured with a blow-up of his face and a call for readers to send Voz the "professor's" name.

"We want to interview him."

(I have no idea who the person is or whether he works at UCI or not. As I have said before, I would never make such a statement to my students. Then again, I never take my personal views into the classroom.)

By the way, none of that has anything to do with Professor LeVine. Perhaps, I am digressing. My apologies.

Finally, I would like to compare what happened February 8 to what happens to MSU-sponsored speakers at UCI. I have been listening to MSU-speakers for a few years now. I do not try to shut them down or prevent them from speaking. I have recently become aware that in November 2001, Amir Abdel Malik Ali came to speak in the wake of 9-11. As he began, a group of Young College Republicans began chanting "USA, USA" then paraded in front of him causing him to stop speaking. The video is short, and I don't know whether Ali was able to go on with his speech. I hope he was. As the MSU well knows, I am usually there when Ali speaks and am prepared to ask him a critical question or engage him in debate away from the microphones. Our exchanges are always spirited but civil. I must confess, however, that a few years ago, I happened by accident to catch the tail end of a speech by Alim Musa. I listened to his offensive words then when he was finished, I called him an "idiot". That was the incident that launched my involvement in the on-going UCI controversy. I have since chosen to take a different approach. (I still think Musa is an idiot.) The point is that MSU events at least in the last several years, have not been subjected to the disruptions that happened on February 8. I also cannot recall any MSU-sponsored events requiring metal-detecters for security's sake.

Finally, Professor LeVine raises a point about "marginalized" Muslim students acting in a manner that "feeds into ingrained stereotypes of irrational and unreasonable angry Muslim men". Unfortunately, the professor is correct. What happened on February 8th has fed into that very stereotype. The UCI incident has been publicized nation-wide and even world-wide. Who was harmed by the incident? I would say the Muslim community as a whole, and I know there are those-both US Muslims and foreign-born Muslims-who are embarrassed.


Anonymous said...

What shocks me is the glaring fallacies of this professor in his arguments. First, he admits that his sponsored group committed the acts of verbal violence, but then tries to diminish their effects as if that mattered. One doesn't steal from someone and then say " I only stole a little bit, so that's ok." I can go on and on with more examples of that.
This professor, a sad example of the title in today's academia, then belittles the audience for reacting in a hostile manner. It doesn't take a professor to know that a retaliation against an initiated use of force is sanctioned within that amount of the initiated force, i.e. verbal abuse was launched and verbal abuse was retaliated. Rightfully, the students will take on more punishment due to its planned nature.
Moreover, claiming that UCI now is suffering a "chilling effect" due to its admonishment not to interrupt a sanctioned speaker is ludicrous. Question and answer segments are designed for just this purpose. If none is granted by the speaker, the opposing view then finds their own speaker and gives their view on their own event.
What's worse is that this professor actually condoned Israeli students donning outlandish masks and pretend like they are being killed when the opposition is speaking. This professor has all the traits of a child who must get the last word every where he goes and with whomever he is speaking with. This prank, like all forms of interruptions, are not intitiated free speech but relations in a setting where no allowance of retaliation is required. This professor has no idea of the difference between initiated and retaliatory actions. Speakers speak and audiences listen (until Q and A) that is the metaphysical nature of that kind of event. Any other type of disrupting "speech" is an initiation of force on a sanctioned event. One voluntary goes to "hear" a speaker; one doesn't go to find new ways to "speak" to the speaker by disruption. How can a simple and common man like me get it while this vaunted (tenured?) and astutely smart professor does not?
More gross violations of logic occurs when he tries to justify the group's disruptions by claiming that Israel is occupying Palestine etc. etc. The students in that auditorium who intitiated violence against the speaker were in no danger. It is a joke, an insult to any one's intelligence to even suggest that they had no choice, nay worse, they had an obligation, to "speak" out in protest on a peaceful American college campus when an invited speaker was lawfully enlightening his audience to favor his cause.
I see here now that a key theme, both in the auditorium and in the argument of Israel vs. Palestine, is that lack of understanding between initiated force and retaliatory force. As the professor knows, but confuses as he seems to have confused every other occasion to decipher between initiated and retaliatory force is that Israel is not occupying anything that it has not gained except in retaliation to genocidal wars against its homeland. The nation of Israel itself was not got by force but by charter and has been maintained in retaliation after retaliation.
I am glad to have been able to read Prof. LeVine's rant, for it gave me this valuable insight as to how logically the violent side has gone so wrong: they conceptualize no difference between raping a woman and the violent reaction to the rape and the punishment that follows.

Gary Fouse said...


For years, I have been observing far-leftists professors rant all they want about their issues and at the same time talk about "chilling effects" and "climates of fear" (Wm Robinson UCSB). Yet they completely dominate the discourse on campus. It is conservatives who have to have the huevos, if you will, to stand up and speak out for what they believe. Hell, I've been jeered plenty of times at these events at UCI for speaking out against these radicals.

(Actually, it's fun to be the skunk at the garden party.)