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Free speech should work both ways


There is an oft-quoted phrase regarding the reverence this nation holds toward freedom of speech, and one that Tuesday’s commentary, “U.S. persecutes pro-Palestinian sentiments,” also mentions: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And what a wonderful sentiment this phrase evokes. But its inclusion in the commentary also highlights the commentary’s underlying hypocrisy.

Interspersed among various strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the author implied that the actions of the Irvine 11, a group of University of California (UC) Irvine and UC Riverside students who were found guilty of disrupting Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at their university, were justified in that they were simply practicing their right to free speech in a public forum. But what about the ambassador’s right to be heard, his right to speak as he was invited to do so? What right did the Irvine 11 have to infringe on his rights? I feel the need to point out what the columnist seems to have forgotten: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

There are many ways to protest and practice your right to be heard. But they should never be at the expense of someone else’s rights. Why didn’t the Irvine 11 simply protest outside the lecture hall? Or, if they wanted to be seen by the attendees of the event, why not practice the same form of silent protest as our world leaders?

At the United Nations General Assembly this past week, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was making his planned speech, the United States and the 27 European Union members all walked out silently, while Canada and Israel boycotted the speech entirely. There was no interrupting, no outbursts from the forum — just a walkout, a simple yet powerful form of protest. Possibly these nations did not even approve of the Iranian president’s presence in the assembly forum in the first place, but they, in a dignified protest, did not actually interrupt his speech. Why didn’t the Irvine 11 try this if they felt the need to be present for Oren’s speech? Why didn’t they just conduct a counter event or demonstration, leaflet the speaker or hold signs in the back?

The Irvine 11 were found guilty of conspiring to disrupt and subsequently disrupting a lawful meeting, which they did. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school, denounced the prosecution, saying “the fact that conduct violates a law does not mean that it should be prosecuted,” noting that prosecutorial discretion tends to take into account whether those being charged have already been disciplined or if there is a necessity for their sentencing. But the dean also rightly said, “The First Amendment does not protect the right of people to go into an auditorium and try to shout down a speaker.”

The author of yesterday’s commentary has strong opinions and a strong voice. And as surely as the author wrote an op-ed, the author wishes for those opinions to be heard. But opinions can never be allowed to drown out the opinions of others, nor can anyone, on any side of any conflict, be allowed to disrupt a peaceful and lawful meeting. Perhaps the sentence was, as Chemerinsky called it, harsh, as the university had already disciplined its students for their actions. But for the author of yesterday’s column to imply that these students were not at fault for impeding on the ambassador’s right to be heard is shameful. Silent walkouts, loud and vocal protesting outside the halls — these and various other forms of protest exist. But impeding another’s freedoms through protest is not free speech — it’s repressive.

Ehud Cohen is a School of Engineering senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

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