Praising ‘Irvine 11’ verdict

California jury handed down guilty verdict to 10 men for trampling the freedom of speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

September 27, 2011 20:23
3 minute read.
Michael Oren

Michael Oren 311. (photo credit: JP)


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Democratic traditions have been around for several centuries. And in the United States, unlike most places in the world, democratic ideals – freedom from religious coercion, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression – are deeply entrenched and second nature for most people. Nevertheless, even in America there remains a surprising amount of confusion regarding the basic tenets of democracy.

A case in point is the controversy surrounding the “Irvine 11” case.

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After two days of deliberations, a jury in Orange County, California, handed down last Friday a guilty verdict for 10 members of a group known as the Irvine 11. These young men, who belonged to the Muslim Student Union at the local University of California campus, were charged in February of this year by Orange County’s District Attorney Tony Rackauckas with two counts of misdemeanor for planning to trample and then trampling the freedom of speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

On February 8, 2010, while trying to deliver a speech at the university, Oren was repeatedly interrupted by the Irvine 11. Instead of waiting to express their disagreement with Oren during a Q and A session at the end of his remarks, the Muslim students, who had planned the incident days in advance, took turns standing up and shouting epithets such as “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!”” and “Murder is not free speech!”

At least 10 times the ambassador was forced to stop his speech. Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson sentenced the students to 56 hours of community service and three years of probation, which can be reduced to one year if they complete their community service by the end of January.

Both the verdict and the sentence were eminently reasonable and reflect the real need to vigilantly protect freedom of speech, a right taken for granted in the US, but almost nonexistent in most of world.

Unfortunately, reactions to the decision reflect either a shaky grasp of the meaning of the First Amendment to the US Constitution or a deliberate attempt to distort and manipulate democratic freedoms to disparage and delegitimize Israeli policies, or both. Organizations such as Harvard College’s Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Alliance for Justice in the Middle East claimed it was the Irvine 11’s freedom of speech, not Oren’s, that had been trampled.

Convinced, apparently, that the ends justify the means, the two Harvard-affiliated organizations declared in a statement that the Irvine 11 should be commended for forcibly silencing “Oren’s propaganda effort to whitewash Israel’s criminal actions and policies in front of college audiences.”

Jewish Voice for Peace also failed to draw the distinction between exercising one’s own freedom of speech and preventing someone else from doing so, and claimed the verdict was a result of Islamophobia.

More surprising, however, was an editorial that appeared in The Orange County Register criticizing what it felt was the “arbitrary” use by the court of the First Amendment to quash offensive speakers – namely the Muslim students. The editorial wondered if the district attorney would have filed criminal charges against individuals who “had interrupted a campus lecture on chemistry or biophysics.”

Apparently, The Register is unaware that unlike the teaching of chemistry or biophysics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s most heatedly debated issues which regularly commands extensive media coverage. The need to carefully protect the right of both sides in the conflict to express their views freely without being unfairly interrupted is all the more pressing precisely for this reason.

Israel’s many detractors are rightly given ample opportunity to freely voice their anti-Israel views on US college campuses without being forcibly silenced. The annual Israeli Apartheid Week is just one example of various Israel-basing fests on campuses across North America.

Organizations such as StandWithUs, the David Project, Hasbara Fellowships, the Israel on Campus Coalition and Masa Israel Journey, along with AIPAC-trained student activists, Hillel-Jewish Agency Israel fellows and others, are taking to the campuses of America to present a different, more accurate picture of Israel while respecting the right of those more critical of Israel to their freedom of speech.

Only through the vigilant protection of a free market of ideas will college students be able to formulate informed opinions on Israel. The Orange County jury and Judge Wilson understand this. Unfortunately, many Americans still don’t.

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