The Threat to Freedom of Speech about Israel: Campus Shout-Downs and the Spirit of the First Amendment

By Weiner, Justus Reid | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Threat to Freedom of Speech about Israel: Campus Shout-Downs and the Spirit of the First Amendment


Weiner, Justus Reid, Jewish Political Studies Review


INTRODUCTION

On February 8, 2010 Michael Oren, Israels ambassador to the United States, began speaking to a packed hall at UC Urvine. Moments into his remarks, Oren was loudly interrupted by a group of students that spent the remainder of his talk hurling crude and unsubstantiated accusations at him. The disrupters delayed Orens speech by nearly an hour, significantly foreshortened his remarks, and almost prevented the audience from hearing him at all. Faculty pleas for restraint were ignored. Both the university and the state of California responded vigorously. University administrators suspended individual student disruptors and the organization to which they belonged while the local District Attorney charged, and successfully convicted, the hecklers for interfering with a public meeting. Both the activists' behavior and the response of the authorities have drawn severe criticism from observers, and all sides present themselves as the genuine defenders of free speech and First Amendment principles.

The tactics used by the UC Irvine disrupters represent a paradigmatic example of what has come to be known as the shout-down} Shout-downs differ from traditional hecklingin that they are neither spontaneous nor an attempt to interact with a speaker. Instead, those engaged in a shout-down deliberately attempt to silence a speaker by speaking over him and preventing an audience from hearing clearly. The event at Irvine was an example of a particularly disruptive "Chicago-style" shout-down, where the disruptors stagger their disruptions to maximize the interference. Similar disruptions have even been used in Congressional committee meetings, as in a recent attempt to silence CIA Director John Brennan during his confirmation hearings.2 The number of shout-downs has risen dramatically over the last decade, and often, universities and other authorities are reluctant to intervene.

The incident at UC Irvine, and the increasing frequency and effectiveness with which protestors attempt to silence invited speakers by shouting over them, requires serious analysis. Similarly, the protestors' insistence that they are merely exercising their own First Amendment rights raises important questions in a country where free speech is both a legal right and a fundamental public value. Flow are we to balance the interests of an invited speaker and an attentive audience against those of hecklers? Is there a right-either moral or legal-to shout over another speaker? Might we distinguish between different forms of heckling, some which advance the cause of free speech and others that do not? What is the true purpose of the First Amendment and what can its history of interpretation and application on college campuses teach us about shout-downs? Can we identify any features in the recent spike in campus shout-downs that shed light on how we should relate to these incidents ?

Section I of this article will analyze the phenomenon of the shout-down in general, and the case of Ambassador Oren at Irvine in particular. It will be argued that the legal case against the Irvine hecklers was justified and that their defense was spurious. Those engaged in shout-downs do not do not enjoy protection under the First Amendment because their actions directly infringe on the interests and rights of others. Furthermore, the Supreme Court's First Amendment jurisprudence emphasizes the importance of an intellectual free market on college campuses, and so the spirit and reasoning of the Court's decisions actually support prosecutions and university sanctions that seek to deter shout-downs. A disturbing trend in recent campus shout-downs, demonstrating that they have been overwhelmingly used against Jewish and Israeli speakers, will be noted. The consistent use of shoutdowns to effectively silence one-half of a complex and important public policy debate makes action against shout-downs all the more critical. The rhetoric used by those engaged in shout-downs is often not only inflammatory but overtly antiSemitic. …

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