'Irvine 11' disruption not an act of free-speech heroism


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You don't have to spend much time watching cable television or listening to talk radio before you hear people being interrupted and cut off.

In these contentious times, there's always going to be a temptation to try to limit the speech of those with whom we profoundly disagree. That impulse fueled an effort by Muslim students at the University of California-Irvine to plan a protest against Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010. The "Irvine 11" stood up, one after another, to shout prepared political statements at Oren, disrupting his speech on U.S.-Israel relations.

The university took internal steps to punish the students for the disruption, and the Orange County district attorney filed misdemeanor charges, leading last week to a conviction of 10 students. One other student will have charges dropped upon completion of community service.

There's been a strong reaction to the verdict by the students' supporters.

"This is yet another reaffirmation that Islamophobia is intensely and extensively alive and thriving in Orange County," said Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura, Council of Southern California, according to the Associated Press. "I believe this will be used as precedent now to suppress speech and dissent throughout the country. This is the beginning of the death of democracy."

Those are strong words and a dire prediction, but there's room for some perspective.

It's a fair question to ask why Orange County prosecutors felt the need to file criminal charges in this case. Disruptive comments and heckling are not rare at public events involving controversial topics, but those are more likely to lead to security officers' escorting someone out than to a criminal prosecution. Granted, the students did plan the disruption in some detail, distinguishing their actions from a spontaneous heckler, but the discrimination question remains.

Beyond the possibility of selective prosecution, however, another issue is whether the students had a free-speech right to act as they did. Their attorney, Reem Salahi, has even called them heroes.

Not so fast. There's nothing noble about exercising your rights to the exclusion of others'. The students had ample opportunities to legally share their opposition to America's foreign policy. They could have picketed outside the building, organized a protest rally on campus, or written letters to the campus newspaper. What they can't do, according to the verdict in this case, is to be so disruptive in a public meeting that they in effect bar others' rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.

The students' supporters contend they were discriminated against and that their concerns about U.S. policy justified interrupting Oren's speech. And yet it is a vibrant First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion for all, that truly protects minority faiths and viewpoints.

Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center. Previously, he served as editor and senior vice president for news of USA Today and USATODAY.com.

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