Free Debate vs. Political Sport on Campus

NEW YORK – For many students, political passion is an essential part of the college experience. But, when such passion makes one feel that possessing “truth” justifies silencing others, we are no longer talking about education, but perverted political sport.

When Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., attempted to deliver a speech last month at the University of California in Irvine, he was disrupted by anti-Israel hecklers. Eleven students were removed from the hall, arrested and told that they might be disciplined.

UCI President Mark G. Yudof and the chancellors of the other UC campuses viewed the episode as part of a dangerous pattern. In a joint statement these heads of California’s public universities said they were “deeply disturbed by recent events at a few of our campuses” and “condemn[ed] all acts of racism, intolerance and incivility. Regardless of how such offenses are rationalized or what free speech rights they purport to express,” they said, “the acts we have witnessed are unacceptable.”

While not specified, these acts presumably included the carving of a swastika on the door of a Jewish student at UC Davis, a “Compton Cookout” marinated with racist stereotypes tied to Back History Month at UC San Diego, the discovery of a noose at a library at the same campus, and, of course, the disruption of Ambassador Oren’s speech.  Supporters of the 11, including members of the Muslim Student Union, held a campus rally after the university leaders released their statement. One lamented that the university leaders were “trying to draw a connection between the ‘Irving 11’ and racism.” In their view Israel is so reprehensibly racist that there is a moral obligation to prevent fellow students from listening to any Israeli speaker.

Yudof and his colleagues, however, had carefully described the importance of “defending a learning environment” that is “respectful of differing views, opinions, experiences, and backgrounds,” and the obligation to “speak out against activities that promote intolerance or undermine civil dialogue.”  A cardinal rule of higher education is that students, faculty, and invited guests must be able to say what they think—and to be challenged by others who disagree.

Further, no vigorous debate can take place when one group of students—in this case, supporters of Israel—cannot invite a speaker without running the risk of disruption. Is the damage done to them and to the university by silencing their viewpoint all that different from the carving of a symbol of hate, or high-volume mocking of a group’s heritage? Imagine if black students had to worry about whether they could invite and listen to speakers of their choice. They would respond, justly, that such a barrier meant they did not have the same worth and rights as other students.  Of course, anyone may disagree in the strongest terms with the remarks of a speaker. But that is a far cry from denying the right of any campus group to bring any speaker it wants—a right the Muslim Student Union has routinely enjoyed.

Rather than painting their heroes as promoters of free speech and opponents of racism, the UCI demonstrators should embrace the statement issued by the university leaders. It underscores the right of free speech for everyone on campus, and that includes the administrators themselves who signed the statement. It also posits that disagreement should be expressed by more free speech, not by suppressing the speech of others. And, it stresses the overarching truth that depriving any students the right to raise ideas for debate makes them into second-class citizens.

Universities function best when all students feel equally at home and comfortable saying what they think, knowing that while their classmates may disagree with them passionately, they will do so civilly. The UC leaders’ statement, if embraced, will help create that environment.

Kenneth Stern is director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Division on Anti-Semitism and Extremism.

To read coverage and see video of Amb. Oren’s speech at UC Irvine, click here.

To read a debate over UC Irvine’s role in dealing with anti-Israel protesters, click here.

Video of Ambassador Oren’s speech at UC Irvine: