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John Hrabe

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Dead Poets Society Lied: What the Movies Don't Teach You About Student Resistance

Posted: 09/25/11 04:55 PM ET

As a white, libertarian-leaning, middle-class kid, every scene of Dead Poets Society appealed to my maudlin sensibilities, and none more than the film's dramatic conclusion.

The school's headmaster Mr. Nolan warns, "One more outburst from you or anybody else, and you're out of this school." Ten students are undeterred. They defiantly stand on their desks and call out, "O Captain! My Captain!"

Prep school pièce de résistance. I was moved.

Movie critic Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was moved "to throw up."

"Dead Poets Society is a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something: doing your own thing, I think," he wrote in the opening line of his scathing review.

Which makes me wonder what the fastidious movie critic would think of an alternate ending, one in which the students are punished by the school and then brought up on misdemeanor charges by the local district attorney for conspiracy and disrupting a meeting?

Oh wait, that isn't fiction, but the real life story of the "Irvine 11." In February 2010, members of UC Irvine's Muslim Student Association systematically interrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. On September 23, an Orange County jury found ten of the students guilty of misdemeanor charges and sentenced them to three years of informal probation.

Hollywood lied to us.

To be clear, I'm not defending the content of the protests, nor do I support the students' outbursts. Freedom of speech doesn't include a heckler's veto, and the students could have protested the ambassador in more constructive ways.

"Obviously, if we are going to have a free marketplace of ideas, people need to have a civil forum in which to speak," argues Dr. Craig Smith, Director of the Center for First Amendment Studies at California State University, Long Beach. "Such forums may be picketed and shouting can take place outside. However, speakers must be given the right to present their ideas without interruption if they are to make their case for their ideas."

But, Dr. Smith also wisely points out that the heckler's veto wasn't the only First Amendment question in this case. There was also the issue of whether Muslim students were singled out and selectively prosecuted because of their views.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the District Attorney selectively prosecuted," said Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - Greater Los Angeles Area, "because the students were Muslim, the speaker was an Israeli diplomat, and the verbal protests centered on Israel's long history of war crimes."

It strains credulity to think that the politics of the speakers didn't affect the decision to prosecute. Had this been a raucous student council meeting about the cost of tuition, the case would have ended in a campus administrative hearing. You'd be laughed out of any prosecutor's office if you tried to turn it into a criminal case. Most hecklers not only avoid prosecution, but get a bigger platform because of their disruptions. Anyone remember Rep. Joe Wilson and Joe the Plumber?

In Orange County, Muslim Americans have other reasons to believe that there's a double standard for free speech. Earlier this year, Villa Park City Councilwoman Deborah Pauly protested an Islamic charity event and exclaimed, "I know quite a few Marines who will be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise." Just this month, San Juan Capistrano City Councilman Derek Reeve said at a council meeting that he named his dog Muhammad to intentional provoke Muslim Americans and make a statement about free speech. These incidents explain why Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, described the verdict as keeping an "open wound" in the community.

If you protect the offensive, anti-Islamic rhetoric of Orange Curtain councilmembers, you have to protect the rights of the UC Irvine Muslim Student Association. As Ayloush put it, "No topic should be off limits and no public official or country should be above criticism."

When controversial speakers are prosecuted under ridiculous "disturbing the peace" statutes, it sets up a forced choice for freedom. Every speaker must live in fear of prosecution, or worse, only the dissenting speakers get quashed. Either scenario is unacceptable because both outcomes lead to less speech.

Our natural reaction to contrasting views should always be to speak out ourselves, not shut our opponents up. Muslim students get the same First Amendment protections as Israeli ambassadors. I'm entitled to my review of Dead Poets Society; and Roger Ebert has a right to his -- even if he's wrong.