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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/23/2010

Is heckling a First Amendment right?

By Valerie Strauss

If you were to list the people who could easily be heckled off a podium in the United States, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would surely be one of them. He has, among other things, accused the U.S. government of terrorism and repeatedly denied the Holocaust.

But when he was invited to speak at Columbia University in 2007 during his visit to the United Nations, he was allowed to give his speech as he wanted.

Yes, there were protests outside. Yes, Columbia President Lee Bollinger (a trustee of the Washington Post Co.) gave a scathing introduction in which he said the Iranian leader resembled "a petty and cruel dictator." Yes, Ahmadinejad’s comments that there are no homosexuals in Iran were met with loud guffaws.

But he wasn’t heckled off the podium. As much as people may have hated what he said, they let him say it.

Over at the University of California at Irvine, however, some Muslim students didn’t extend the courtesy to the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren.

Oren had been invited to speak at the university Feb. 8 by several school sponsors, including the law school and the political science department. The dean of the law school, Erwin Chemerinsky, explained what happened in a piece in The Los Angeles Times.

Before the speech, rumors spread that members of the Muslim Student Union planned to interrupt Oren. They denied it, but it happened anyway. Someone would get up, shout anti-Israel statements--Oren himself was accused of murder-- to the applause of some of the crowd. When that person was escorted out by authorities, another would repeat the action.

At one point Oren left the stage but returned. Eleven people were arrested; they face student disciplinary hearings, and there is division on campus about what should happen to them.

Supporters of the arrested say their First Amendment right of speech has been violated. The Web site Inside Higher Education quoted from a letter released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations saying that the protest “falls within the purview of protected speech.” A statement by the Muslim Public Affairs Council said essentially the same thing.

Irvine officials disagree. Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar, wrote in the Times:

“Freedom of speech, on campuses and elsewhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree. The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a heckler’s veto -- to prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing the speaker. There is simply no 1st 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.”

The episode was just the latest tensions at Irvine, where the Muslim Students Union has over the years invited inflammatory anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli speakers. A number of universities across the country--and around the world--have seen a stepped-up campaign against Israeli scholars and visiting Israeli officials by opponents who spew vitriol and threats, often unchallenged.

You can read an account of this campaign written by Richard L. Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University’s Program in Publishing, author of the book “Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel.”

There is something obscene about such behavior being tolerated on college campuses, which exist for the free exchange of ideas. Real academic freedom is a complicated idea, but it most certainly does not involve threats, or episodes in which people are permitted to shout down anybody with whom they disagree.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 23, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  free speech, higher education  
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This happens all the time. Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Jim Gilchrist, Geert Wilders, Ehud Olmert, the list goes on.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 23, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

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