Should students who conspire to "shut down" an invited speaker with whom they disagree be prosecuted for the misdemeanor of conspiracy to disturb a meeting? That is the question roiling the University of California. The facts are not really in dispute. Israel's Ambassador to the United States -- a moderate academic named Michael Oren -- was invited to present a talk at the University of California at Irvine, a hotbed of radical Islamic hate speech against Israel. The Muslim Student Union organized an effort, in the words of one of its leaders, to "shut down" Oren's speech -- that is to prevent Oren from expressing his views and to stop the audience who came to hear him from listening to them. Here is the way the Dean of the law school, who opposes any criminal prosecution, described what happened.
The Muslim Student Union orchestrated a concerted effort to disrupt the speech. One student after another stood and shouted so that the ambassador could not be heard. Each student was taken away only to be replaced by another doing the same thing.
The dean's description is something of an understatement -- as anyone can see by watching a video of the event, available online. This was more than a "concerted effort to disrupt the speech. It was a concerted effort to stop it completely -- to "shut [it] down."
Ultimately, that effort failed and Oren managed to deliver his speech, after many long and sustained disruptions, but if the Muslim Student Union had gotten its way, Oren would have been shut down completely. The university, which is a state institution, had a constitutional obligation to protect the First Amendment rights of Oren's audience to hear what he had to say, and the state prosecutor has a legal obligation to deter future conspiracies to censor controversial speakers, by criminally prosecuting those students who conspired to deny other students their First Amendment rights.
While dissenting students have the right to express disapproval of a speaker's views by episodic booing, heckling or holding signs, they have no right to conspire to shut down a speaker, which is what the Muslim Student Union students did in this case. One would think that this distinction should be clear to all civil libertarians, academics and others who claim to care about freedom of speech on campus.
It is shocking therefore to see who has lined up behind the students who set out to censor Ambassador Oren. Two prominent leaders of the American Civil Liberties have joined with radical Muslims and other extremists in an effort to pressure the local District Attorney to drop misdemeanor charges against 11 student censors.
A letter supporting the censoring students was signed by Chuck Anderson, President of the Orange County ACLU, and Hector Villagra, the incoming Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California, along with several other radical anti-Israel extremists such as the local heads of the Council on American-Islamic relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Lawyers Guild, the Islamic Shura Council, and the West Coast Islamic Society (If you don't believe this, as I originally didn't, read the entire letter for yourself. It can be found here.)
The ACLU leaders have denied they support censorship and claim that the letter they signed is merely a request to the local District Attorney to drop criminal charges against the students who tried to shut Oren down. But the letter goes much further and defends -- indeed praises -- the censorial actions those students, while condemning the actions of other students who wanted to hear the speaker.
Here is how the letter described the actions of the students who came to shut down the speaker:
the students non-violently and verbally protested a university-invited speaker. The students left the event peacefully.
The letter then compared the actions of the censors with those who wanted to listen:
[They] conducted themselves in less of a disruptive manner than some of the counter-protesters....
Sounds as if the Muslim Student Union deserved a civil liberties award, while the students who came to listen to the invited speaker -- "the counter-protestors" -- deserve to be condemned. In a more recent letter the ACLU leaders claim that "the students' intent was not to censor the speaker...."
The problem with the ACLU account is that it is completely fictional -- made up out of whole cloth -- as anyone can see for themselves by viewing the video and listening to the Muslim Students Association leaders who described their aim to "shut down" -- that is to censor -- the speakers. That is why these students are being prosecuted, according to the District Attorney -- not for merely "protesting" the speaker's views, but because they "meant to stop [Ambassador Oren's] speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas." The students themselves have been more honest about their intentions than the ACLU leaders. For instance, one student leader refused to acknowledge that Mr. Oren had First Amendment rights of his own by interrupting him and shouting, "Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!" Another student was caught on video telling a crowd assembled outside the event that "we pretty much shut them down."
Ultimately a jury will decide whether the students conspired to "shut down" Oren's talk, or whether they were merely "protesting" the content of his talk. The evidence will clearly show a conspiracy to stop Oren from speaking.
Why then have the ACLU leaders distorted the facts and conveyed a totally misleading impression of what took place at the University of California? The answer seems clear. These leaders don't like Israel and they support the censorship of pro-Israel views. They would never take the same position if the shoe had been on the other foot: If the speaker were from Hamas and the students trying to shut him down were pro-Israel.
The national ACLU must investigate this matter and take action to assure that its longstanding principle of neutral support for freedom of expression has not been compromised by local leaders who have placed their opposition to Israel above the principles of free speech.
Another group that has sought to pressure the District Attorney to give the censors a pass is comprised of 30 Jewish Studies faculty members at the University of California. That may be surprising to some who believe that such professors would be sympathetic to students who wanted to listen to the Israeli Ambassador and history professor.
But it is not surprising to those who understand that many Jewish Studies departments have been hijacked by anti-Israeli extremists. Among the signers of this letter were academics who favor boycotts, divestment and demonization of Israel as an Apartheid or Nazi regime.
As a lifelong civil libertarian and defender of free speech, I hope the District Attorney will not succumb to these political pressures. The values of the First Amendment favor prosecution in this case, just as they would if Jewish students conspired to shut down an Anti-Israel speaker. The defense of freedom of speech must be neutral and vigorous.
Alan Dershowitz's latest novel is The Trials of Zion. This article was originally published in the Orange County Register.