An Unjust Conviction at Irvine

A jury in Orange County today found 10 UC-Irvine and UC-Riverside students guilty of conspiring to disrupt a speech at Irvine by the Israeli ambassador to the US. I wrote about this case last year, when I objected to the collective punishment of a student group for what these individuals did: “it appears that the disruptions only last a few seconds, and the protesters are very cooperative with the police. Altogether, the speech was disrupted for only a few minutes, and most of that came from faculty and administrators urging the disruptions to stop.” I added, “A heckler’s veto must include a veto. That is, it must effectively prevent a speech going forward. In this case, the speech went on. And it appears that a protest, not a veto, was the intention of the students, who decided: ‘If you complete your statements without being escorted out, then simply sit back down.’ So it was not aimed at silencing anyone. But it was a serious, multiple disruption of a speaker that certainly deserves condemnation and is subject to minor punishment (although I think the proper reaction is criticism, and not punishment of any kind).”

When people engage in wrong-headed and obnoxious protests, the correct response in a free society is to criticize them, not subject them to legal proceedings or even university disciplinary hearings. Unless a threat is made, or a speaker is unable at all to speak, free speech will survive. There’s absolutely no reason why there should have been any criminal charges filed in this case, and it raises the danger that hecklers who express unpopular ideas will face legal action against them.


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