9 August 2010
The University of California at Irvine has been in the news this year because of an act of civil disobedience staged at the Michael Oren speech in February. 11 students, some of whom were members of the UCI Muslim Student Union, punctually disrupted the speech with brief slogans before being willingly escorted from the venue. The Israeli Ambassador, however, was able to continue and complete his message on behalf of Israel. While many in the press and elsewhere have become sudden experts in 1st Amendment rights and free speech law and condemned the “Irvine 11”, many teachers, researchers and students have understood the event as an illustration that the university, as an institution, is a vital space where all speech should be possible – including principled acts of civil disobedience – but one that is endangered by the failure of campus administrations to uphold these core values and to understand who they serve.
The members of California Scholars for Academic Freedom find ourselves addressing the UC Irvine administration with grave concern over the administration’s treatment of UCI’s Muslim Student Union, a campus group that has been consistently the target of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and other groups for years. Despite a lawsuit, launched by the ZOA and dismissed as “groundless” by the Department of Justice, despite the constant attentions of Campus Watch, despite the targeting of UCI students and faculty by racist hate mail, despite the consistent presence of Zionist agitators on campus and at every event supported or organized by the MSU, despite nearly a decade in a climate of hostility about which the administration has done very little, the MSU continues to thrive and to contribute to campus and community life in countless ways. In recognition of their achievements and record of service to the community, UCI’s Cross Cultural Center bestowed their first annual Award for Community Service to the MSU in 2009-2010. It is striking that the administration has seen fit to censure and suspend this very campus group. What explanation can the administration offer to the campus community to account for this radical discrepancy?
The decision to suspend the MSU can only be read in light of the pressure brought to bear on the administration by the ZOA and like-minded groups. The administration’s decision is now and will continue to be understood as censorship of political speech critical of Israel and censorship of lawful activism on behalf of Palestinian human rights. Zionist advocates have stated in the conventional and online press that this is exactly the message they want to send to the UC administration and to the campus community (OC Weekly Matt Coker, Wed., Feb. 17 2010). None of the arguments proffered in the Cornish letter, which explains UCI’s logic and defense of the decision to collectively punish the MSU for the activism of some of its members, can convince reasonable people that this decision has not been taken unilaterally. Nor does it reflect past practice; in the past, right-wing political groups have enjoyed great license to disrupt events organized by the MSU without provoking campus censure. All of this is to say that the judgment of UCI’s administration has been compromised. We, as California Scholars for Academic Freedom, can only conclude that fairness and the fundamental mission of the university to protect freedom of thought, critical disagreement and the political speech of its scholars and students have been superseded by other values. What are the values to take the place of fairness, equality, intellectual freedom and freedom to speak politically? UCI’s administration has proposed “civility” while behaving – for instance in its decision to suspend the MSU and its intimidation of individual students involved in the Oren protest – as if the uncivil speech of outside pressure groups constitutes an unquestionable truth about the actions of activist students.
Collective punishment of the MSU for the actions of individuals is obviously unacceptable and runs counter to community norms. The punishment of individuals for engaging in a planned, serious, principled, non-violent protest, especially a protest in which the target of protest was able to deliver his message, is obviously unacceptable and runs counter to every value that is at the core of the university’s mission. Indeed in the history of the UC system sanction such as that considered by UCI’s administration has been reserved for serious ethical infractions like cheating and harassment or for reckless behavior associated with fraternity life. Even in cases that reasonable people would consider might warrant sanctioning – for instance, in cases of racial incitement such as hanging a noose in the UCSD library – sanctions have not been used. Further, the MSU has recorded incidents of disruption of the speech of their invited speakers by pro-Zionist groups and made these recordings available on its website. UCI’s administration did not respond to those recorded incidents – which parallel the Oren incident – with concern over civility or the first amendment rights of MSU speakers.
The mission of the university is to secure, promote and protect the freedom of speech and thought of its students and scholars. It is not the mission of the UC system to provide an uncritical venue for the ambassador of Israel to spread his political message. It is not the mission of UCI to censure student activism for fear of repercussions in the form of loss of corporate or foundation dollars as is now rumored (in the pages of the Los Angeles Times). Indeed, the UCI administration should be doing everything in its power to allay fears that special interests of outside pressure groups have any influence on campus decisions affecting the constitution of student groups or the free expression of controversial ideas.
The failure of the UCI administration to clarify the principles of intellectual and political free speech and to underline the fundamental truth that the campus – any campus – must be a place where all voices are heard, where the traditions of civil disobedience are known and taught, where the courage of the civil rights movement is not forgotten and where principled disagreement is not only sanctioned but encouraged, these failures are aggravated by the UCI administration’s one success – its unfailing responsiveness to the complaints of pro-Israeli pressure groups.
No student group can match the raw power of a sovereign state, and certainly the MSU is vulnerable to the political forces that oppose it and any declaration of Palestinian human rights or criticism of Israel. It is the responsibility of the university to protect student groups when they engage in principled political speech of an unpopular kind. It is the responsibility of the university to behave and to respond as an institution of higher learning rather than as a corporate entity more concerned about legal indemnity and the happiness of potential or actual donors than modeling ideals. That there now exists a fundamental doubt over UCI’s actual commitments is a shame but not one caused by any student action. Rather, the relentless assault of the ZOA on the UCI MSU has caused the administration to lose its focus and forget its primary responsibility. We do not exist to constantly manage the peculiar hostility of outside pressure groups.
Our purpose is to promote, foster and cultivate exactly the kind of idealism and outspokenness exhibited by the Irvine 11, and for this reason we condemn the decision of UCI administration to suspend the MSU and call for its full reinstatement. Once the MSU is fully reinstated, then a principled debate and discussion of US foreign policy in relation to Palestine will be possible.