UC Irvine: free speech or hate speech?

Copley News Service reported:

A guest speaker at the University of California Irvine this year denounced compromise solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declared that “the Palestinians must have their will crushed.”

A group of protesters then disrupted the speech and marched outside, where one young man said to rousing cheers that “it’s just a matter of time before the state of Israel will be wiped off the face of the Earth.”

There seems to be a real battle going on among a relatively small, but vocal number of UC Irvine students. The involvement of outside organizations, coverage by national media outlets like Fox News, and the use of YouTube and blogs, has, suggests campus administrators, stirred up more intensity on the campus.

A recent statement by the campus paper editorial board about a planned third investigation into anti-Semitism on the campus (by Hillel) argued:

But when one considers the entirety of the evidence that can be brought against UCI, the inescapable conclusion is that anti-Semitic students are a tiny minority who give a bad name to the 25,000 others here.

Exaggerating the extent of anti-Semitism at UCI does harm unfairly to our school’s reputation and sends the misleading message that anti-Semites are welcome here.

The few virulently anti-Jewish students at UCI – some of whom have no reservations about loudly spreading their hateful rhetoric – are met with indifference (at best) by the vast majority of students, who are more interested in getting to class than they are in engaging with bigots.

Meanwhile, disturbing videos circulating the net featuring anti-Semitic hate speech, specifically against Jewish supporters of Israel, have caused great concern in parts of the area Jewish community.

In Harsh speech called free speech at UC Irvine

Facing a polite but skeptical Jewish audience, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake walked a tightrope Wednesday as he tried to explain that campus events seen by some as anti-Semitic are actually expressions of constitutionally protected free speech.

Drake met with more than 600 members of the county’s Jewish community who expressed concern about what they perceived as anti-Semitic activity on campus, much of it involving Muslim students. The town hall meeting — organized by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — was held at the Shir Ha Ma’alot synagogue in Irvine.

UCI has become a flashpoint in the national Israeli-Arab debate that has created hard feelings between Muslims and Jews. This month, Muslim students on campus sponsored a presentation, “Israel: Apartheid Resurrected,” protesting that country’s policies toward Palestinians.

It was the latest in a series of events that have sparked tension between the groups on campus, with some Jewish students complaining that the exhibit relayed a message of anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews.

On Wednesday, Drake heard complaints that Jewish students were afraid to be on campus and was challenged repeatedly to draw a line between free speech and hate speech. But he said it was an impractical and impossible assignment.

“Free speech means simply that: free speech,” he told one questioner.

To another, he said: “Speech is protected. It can be hateful. It can be wrong. It can be vile.” Unlike speech, he added, violent acts are not protected.

Meanwhile, an alum and student complained in a UC editorial that

The e-mail sent by Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez expresses pride about our campus for its putative open forum for discussion and freedom of expression, only one week after the Muslim Student Union faced some of the most restrictive and biased policy regulations over what was essentially a political exposé of the brutalities of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories through the use of the mock wall. Although the MSU repeatedly emphasized that the event was critical of a political doctrine, Zionism, and in no way anti-Semitic or disrespectful to the Judaic faith, it was repeatedly harassed by administrators. Loopholes in “time, place, manner” restrictions (governing how tall the wall could be, what could be put on it, where it could be placed and for how long) were used by administrators to limit the event’s effectiveness and impact, essentially curtailing the free speech that the Chancellor appears to espouse so adamantly (refer to the Chancellor’s e-mail welcoming Jimmy Carter to speak about Palestine).

University administrators are responding to Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism by arguing for free speech, but publicly funded universities, as we have said before, should hold a different standard. They should no more offer platforms for anti-Muslim bigots like Walid Shoebat (who recently spoke on campus) than they should for anti-Semites like Amir Abdel Malik Ali (featured in the videos), who has spoken at the campus repeatedly.

When there are students who are afraid to walk on a public campus openly identified by their religion, the time has long passed for defending the status quo based on free speech arguments:

“When I got to UCI, I did not have any idea that I would be hit hard with such a strong anti-Israel sentiment,” said Reut Cohen, a third-year student active in pro-Israel groups. “It’s really strange because Irvine in general is very Christian (and) very conservative.”

Marya Bangee, a third-year student who serves as spokeswoman for the Muslim Students Union, echoed that sentiment, but from the opposite perspective.

“We’re in the middle of conservative Orange County, and that is obviously a difficult atmosphere to be discussing political issues here,” she said. “There are definitely organizations … that are trying to shut down free speech with regard to Israel.”

Tensions escalated throughout the spring as former President Jimmy Carter visited the campus to discuss his latest book, which is highly critical of Israel. Last month, the Muslim Student Union held an annual week of events sharply criticizing Israel, and one member of the group had a bizarre run-in with an FBI agent who appeared to be monitoring students on campus.

Jewish groups have raised concerns that campus events ostensibly criticizing Israeli policy have crossed over into anti-Semitism, while some Muslims have complained that rhetoric from the other side denigrates their religion.

Still, Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez said the campus has an obligation to allow free speech to be stretched to its limits.

“If we don’t allow the discussion and the debate of these ideas within a university community, where there are so many rich intellectual resources, where do we allow it?” he asked rhetorically.

Gomez added that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has created similar tension at other universities recently, among them Columbia, Duke, Georgetown and the University of California Berkeley. He suggested that a unique feature of the debate at UC Irvine is the deep involvement of outside organizations, something he attributes to the school’s “open, public” nature.

Administrators should first start by doing substantive research with Jewish and Muslim students, away from the influence of outside advocacy organizations on either side, to determine what’s really happening on campus, to what extent the campus has become an unsafe environment, and to uncover solutions that might enhance communication rather than add to the polarization.

The university should also clarify their own guidelines about financing speakers who promote hate speech. Of course, therein lies the rub. I would argue that neither Daniel Pipes (also a speaker) nor Amir Abdel Malik Ali should be funded as speakers on a public campus. Clearly, while Standwithus and I may agree on the latter, we would not agree on the former. Who gets to decide? The administration should.

Maybe there should be a simple litmus test: simply take a speaker’s words, and replace “Jew Zionist” with “Islamofascist”, or “Islam” with “Judaism.” It might be educational for everyone involved. But certainly, one should expect more from UC’s administrator’s than defending the status quo based on “free speech” principles, or, by the same standards, selectively targeting legitimate political expression by some students. On the other hand, to be fair, they know that whatever they do, for some group, it will be the wrong thing.
Perhaps it’s time for both sides to invest in institutions that help students communicate with each other, rather than fight with each other.