Sunday, September 25, 2011

Muslim Students "Disrupting" Speech

In Santa Ana, California, Orange County Superior Court sentenced fifty-six hours of community service and three years of informal probation to ten Muslim students convicted of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, at the University of California Irvine during his speech about U.S. – Israeli relations. Each man stood up, one by one, and shouted various prepared statements. One such statement included “propagating murder is not an expression of free speech.” Judge Peter J. Wilson claimed that the episode did not merit jail time, and that the probation period had potential to be reduced if the community service was completed by the end of January 2012. The ten students were guilty of two misdemeanors to conspire and then disrupt the ambassador’s speech.

Prosecutors claim that the men interfered with Oren’s right to free speech. Defenders of the students, however, point to another incident of “Islamophobia”. This phobia specifically characterizes those prejudiced, or those who experience hatred against Muslims, or an irrational fear of Islamic culture, particularly after September 11, 2011.

This incident garnered national attention over free-speech rights particularly because the trial centered on conflicting views of who was being censored. Prosecutors posited that Michael Oren’s speech was “shut down” once the students interrupted his talk. It appears that this incident goes beyond free-speech rights. It would have made more sense if the students were convicted of “disrupting the peace.” Typically crimes of this sort are defined as unsettling proper order in a public space through one’s actions by creating loud noises or using offensive words likely to incite violence. The news article gave very few specific details about what each student called out during the speech, but perhaps some of their statements fostered violent behavior. If so, the school dealt with these students correctly.

Certainly this incident calls into question the interpretation of the First Amendment, which guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” Both parties, the ten students and Michael Oren, obtained the right to freedom of speech. I am still unclear though as to what specific law the ten students broke. Undoubtedly it was incredibly rude of them to shout during a public speaking event, but shouldn’t they just have been asked to leave if they were disrupting the presentation? It seems a little excessive to be subject to community service as well as an extended period of probation. Furthermore, this verdict discourages political expression by demonstrating that speaking out will certainly lead to negative consequences. Other Muslim students also potentially feel ostracized and worry they will be treated differently from other students. It is important to note that similar outbursts have occurred during speeches by Israeli officials on other college campuses, yet have not prompted disciplinary actions from either the university or law enforcement officials.

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council proclaimed, “the heart of America has died today.” Syed refers to the fact that the right to protest and the right to free speech challenge tenets of democracy. This verdict eclipsed both of these rights for all ten Muslim students.


Harry R. said...

While I agree with Sophie that the reaction to the students' actions may have been more extreme than was warranted, I do not believe that that necessarily means they were in the right. At a public event, the speaker has been granted the right to present their views. The members of the audience are supposed to listen to the speech and then, when appropriate, they can ask questions or speak up. If the students repeatedly interrupted the speaker and restricted his ability to give his speech, then I feel that the audience violated the speaker's rights to freedom of speech.

Ally R said...

I agree with Sophie in the aspect that the students should not have been punished in this way. Although they were rude and disruptive, they were also practicing their free speech, much like the speaker. Therefore, I do not understand how they infringed upon his free speech. However, although I agree that these ten students should not have been punished to this extreme, I also disagree with their lawyers defense, Islamophobia. What bothers me about this defense, is that race is being used unnecessarily. I feel that the defense was using this in order to scare the court into coming across as a non-racial establishment, rather than arguing the matter truly at hand, whether or not Oren's rights were violated.