Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Problem with Punishing Groups

Inside Higher Ed has a story about the University of California at Irvine punishing the Muslim Student Union (MSU) for disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States.

I'm quoted in the piece, but here are some further thoughts about the issue.

I haven't seen an unedited video of the event, but if you watch the edited video posted by a pro-Israeli group, 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. Erin O'Connor writes, “This was classic heckler's veto behavior.”

No, it's not. 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 certain deserves condemnation and is subject to minor punishment (although I think the proper reaction is criticism, and not punishment of any kind).

Heckling is not a legitimate form of free expression. It is disruptive, and annoying. However, in a free society we generally tolerate a certain level of heckling, and impose only minimal penalties on those who engage in it.

As for the punishment for the student organization, I don't believe in collective punishment, including bans on student groups. First, it's possible that there were innocent members of this group who will now suffer despite not being involved. Second, I can't see how anything prevents members of the Muslim group from creating a new, separate Muslim student organization. (It would obviously be unconstitutional for the university to ban other Muslim groups from being started.) So it's easy to evade any punishment of a student group.

Peter Bonilla at FIRE has a rather disturbing reaction to the punishment: “this episode serves as a reminder that attempting to silence the speech of others may only result in being excluded from the conversation.” That's a very odd statement from a civil liberties group, and it reflects the danger here. No university should ever be trying to exclude anyone from a campus conversation, even if they have previously acted rudely.

The best penalty for any student organization that engages in organized heckling is condemnation, which is exactly what happened here. Michael Oren wasn't silenced. To the contrary, he won a tremendous propaganda victory thanks to the foolishness of his opponents. Instead of talking about how the Israeli government suppresses dissent, among Palestinians and others (such as Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, who were banned from entering Israel to speak), we're talking (in very exaggerated terms) about repression by Muslim students. I don't think anyone is going to imitate the idiots who heckled anytime soon at UCI.

Universities should speak out against hecklers, but any punishment of organizations is misguided, and even punishment of individuals seems unnecessary in this case.

1 comment:

Peter Schlactus said...

What is misguided is to ignore the role played by any potentially uninvolved members by not blocking this plot, by not doing the right thing and alerting university authorities in advance, and even by choosing to associate with a group that employs such tactics instead of forming a group of their own. The real world judges you by who your friends and associates are, not only your overt actions. College would seem to be a very appropriate place to try to make those lessons clear.

Otherwise, MSU can simply strategize to "sacrifice" certain individuals in one instance like this, while leaving others "in reserve" for the next time. This would not serve the goal of changing the tone of debate on campus. The university is doing the right thing and apologists like you are not promoting the goals you purport to espouse since over the long run tacitly condoning such behavior via weak and ineffectual consequences simply allows it to flourish and drives others to "join" what they can't "beat."