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ACLU Needs To Clarify Stance On Censoring Israeli Speakers


The international campaign to prevent speakers from delivering pro-Israel talks at universities has been assisted by leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union – an organization that is supposed to protect freedom of speech for all. The method used to silence these speakers and preclude their audiences from hearing their message is exemplified by a now infamous event at the University of California at Irvine.

Michael Oren – a distinguished scholar and writer, a moderate supporter of the two-state solution, and now Israel’s ambassador to the United States – was invited to speak. The Muslim Student Union set out to prevent him from delivering his talk. Here is the way Erwin Chemerinksy, dean of the law school, described what the students did:

“The Muslim Student Union orchestrated a concerted effort to disrupt the speech. One student after another stood and shouted so that the ambassador could not be heard. Each student was taken away only to be replaced by another doing the same thing.”

Chemerinsky understates what happened; as anyone can see by watching a video of the event available online, it was more than a “concerted effort to disrupt the speech.” It was a concerted effort to stop it completely – to censor Oren’s right to speak and his audience’s right to hear him. Advertisement

The efforts to disrupt succeeded; the effort to stop ultimately failed. Moreover, Chemerinsky fails to mention what happened both before and after the concerted effort. There is undisputed evidence that there was a well-planned conspiracy to censor Oren’s talk, and then to lie about it, which the students did after the event.

The students were disciplined by the university for their actions, though the nature and degree of the discipline has been kept confidential. Campus sources have characterized it as a “slap on the wrist.” Since the students were arrested, the district attorney, quite understandably, commenced a criminal investigation. After learning of the careful planning that went into the concerted effort to prevent Oren from speaking and the subsequent cover-up, the DA filed misdemeanor charges against those who were involved.

This decision resulted in an outcry by radicals, many of whom favor censorship of pro-Israel speakers. In a letter to the DA signed by many well-known anti-Israel zealots, the incident was described as merely a protest: “The students nonviolently and verbally protested ”

Then, in an effort to blame the victims, the letter pointed the finger at pro-Israel students who wanted to listen to Oren speak claiming – quite falsely – that the Muslim Student Union censors “conducted themselves in less of a disruptive manner than some of the counter-protestors ” This is simply a lie, as anyone can see by viewing the video.

Moreover, the intent of the so-called counter-protestors was simply to hear the speaker, whereas the intent of the Muslim Student Union was to censor the speaker.

The fact that radical anti-Israel zealots would support censorship of a pro-Israel speaker comes as no surprise. But the fact that the letter of support was signed by two ACLU leaders should shock all civil libertarians and supporters of the ACLU. I have been a supporter of the ACLU for half a century and was a national board member. I supported the right of Nazis to march through Skokie and I defend the right of the most virulent anti-Israel speakers to participate in the marketplace of ideas.

The ACLU policy has always been to oppose concerted efforts to prevent speakers from delivering their remarks. While supporting sporadic heckling and jeering that merely demonstrates opposition to the content of the remarks, the ACLU has always condemned concerted efforts to silence invited speakers.

Yet signatories of the letter – which never once criticizes the censoring Muslim Union students while condemning those who wanted to hear the speaker – include “Chuck Anderson,” who identifies himself as “President ACLU Chapter, Orange County and Chair, The Peace and Freedom Party, Orange County” (a hard left anti-Israel group), and “Hector Villagro,” who identifies himself as “Incoming Executive Director, ACLU of Southern California.”

Dean Chemerinsky, while also opposing criminal prosecution, made a point to condemn the censoring students:

“The students’ behavior was wrong and deserves punishment. There is no basis for the claim that the disruptive students were just exercising their First Amendment rights. There is no constitutional right to disrupt an event and keep a speaker from being heard. Otherwise, any speaker could be silenced by a heckler’s veto. The Muslim students could have expressed their message in many other ways: picketing or handing out leaflets outside the auditorium where Ambassador Oren was speaking, making statements during the question and answer period, holding their own events on campus.”

The ACLU leaders, on the other hand, seem to be justifying the actions of the censoring students while limiting their condemnation to the pro-Israel students who wanted to hear the speaker.

After being criticized for supporting censorship, Villagro sought to justify his signing the letter by the following “logic”: “The district attorney’s action will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges.”

The opposite is true. If these students are let off with a slap on the wrist from the University, that will encourage other students around the nation and the world to continue with efforts to prevent pro-Israel speakers from delivering their speeches. The ACLU should be supporting a clear line between occasional heckling and outright censorship.

The ACLU leaders who signed the letter are on the wrong side of that line and should not be speaking for the ACLU.

Unless the ACLU explicitly renounces its leaders support for students who seek to censor pro-Israel speakers, the organization will lose the backing of many who believe that all speech should be protected – not only speech approved by its leaders.

Alan Dershowitz, a noted attorney and law professor, is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Trials of Zion.”

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