By now we’ve all heard about the eleven Muslim students who intentionally disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) on February 8. The incident has exploded into arguments about free speech all over the world. There is much debate over whether or not the Muslim Student Union — already infamous for inviting ant-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers to UCI’s campus — was involved in the interruptions.
As a UCI student who attended the event and saw everything that happened, the whole situation has left me — and many other students — thoroughly embarrassed. Since the MSU’s president and vice president were among the 11 arrested disruptors, there’s little doubt in my mind that the whole thing was at the very least discussed within the club’s social circle, if not outright officially organized by their leadership.
I recognized nearly all of the disruptors and their supporters as MSU members and saw that many of them were wearing shirts from past MSU anti-Israel weeks. When the group of Muslim students finally got up and left — noisily — I heard some of them chanting, “This is our campus.”
A coalition of students on campus has begun a grassroots campaign to fight to protect our right to free speech at our school. Anybody interested can find more information at the campaign’s website.
A lot of people have also been eyeing how the UCI administration has reacted to the entire matter, in particular Chancellor Michael Drake. The chancellor has been the recipient of harsh words for refraining from condemning the MSU’s provocative rhetoric as hate speech, even when their speakers shout Jewish conspiracy theories on campus. The sheer rudeness of the recent interruptions, though, has finally given Drake room to criticize behavior that has been a constant thorn in his side. After the disruptions, Drake took the microphone and expressed how much the disruptors’ actions embarrassed him and the school as a whole. He has since released two e-mails to the UCI student and faculty body condemning the interruptions and discussing the importance of common civility.
“I am disappointed that some in our community seem more comfortable engaging in confrontation than collaboration and in closing channels of communication rather than opening them,” Drake wrote in an e-mail titled “Why Do Values and Civility Matter?”
The campus paper also published an open letter from Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez discussing free speech the week following the incident.
“No one can steal the right to speak from someone else,” Gomez’s letter concludes. “No one’s right to speak is greater than anyone else’s. If you want to claim your right to speak, you must acknowledge and respect the same right for everyone.”
Personally, while I understand he has a lot of legal matters to take into consideration, I’ve always wanted to see the chancellor crack down on the MSU for inviting such hateful speakers to our school. It’s no secret that the MSU has been a constant annoyance for the UCI administration, and this situation is only going to worsen the relationship. And while many people are foaming at the mouth at the timidity of Drake’s response, we must ask the question: what else can he do?
Drake has already explicitly condemned the students’ actions as a violation of free speech. He may not have directly criticized the MSU since there is no undeniable proof linking them to the interruptions (yet), but this is certainly the closest he has ever come to doing so. The offending students are currently awaiting academic and legal punishment, as they should, and no doubt the MSU — whether linked to the interruptions or not — is going to suffer as an organization. This is as it should be: a club is only defined by the actions of its leaders, who are elected by the club’s majority.