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The Irvine 11 (UPDATED)

That is how the students arrested for disrupting the Israeli ambassador’s speech at the University of California, Irvine are being described by their supporters.

Like the Seattle Seven ("That was me and, uh, six other guys"), the Scottsboro Nine, the Four Tops, the Stooges Three, and other monuments to American injustice and the peculiarities of taste, the 11 are not without their defenders. At least two Web sites have been launched (see here and here) and national groups have been recruited to the cause.

As Inside Higher Ed noted this week, most scholars say the free speech defense is bunk. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the Irvine law school, dedicated most of a column yesterday in the L.A. Times to demolishing that claim.

The government, including public universities, always can impose time, place and manner restrictions on speech. A person who comes into my classroom and shouts so that I cannot teach surely can be punished without offending the 1st Amendment. Likewise, those who yelled to keep the ambassador from being heard were not engaged in constitutionally protected behavior.

Freedom of speech, on campuses and elsewhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree. The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a heckler’s veto — to prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing the speaker. There is simply no 1st Amendment right to go into an auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message.

The remedy for those who disagreed with the ambassador was to engage in speech of their own, but in a way that was not disruptive. They could have handed out leaflets, stood with picket signs, spoken during the question-and-answer session, held a demonstration elsewhere on campus or invited their own speakers.

This thing is escalating into a full bore information war. Irvine11.com has a video that I like to think of as the Palestinian director’s cut of the much-circulated video of the disrupted Oren speech. It features Oren supporters cursing and gesticulating, and one bizarre section where a disembodied voice calmly suggests that someone — it’s not clear who — should go become a suicide bomber and do the world a favor. 

The site also features statements from the arrested students, all couched in the language of protest and free speech. The student government of UC San Diego has come out in their favor. And in a clever twist, they even cite a recent statement from President Obama, after he was heckled at a recent event, that can be construed as defending hecklers. Though as a former law professor himself, one has to imagine Obama is closer to Chemerinsky’s view on the limits of the First Amendment. 

This whole spectacle is about as arresting as watching a slow-motion car crash. Which is to say, very. But the sad part is, little good can come of this. The 11 students possibly facing prosecution will, with the help of all their supporters invoking the claims of high principle, come to see the judicial forces bearing down on them as yet one more manifestation of the Jewish juggernaut that silences and intimidates opponents. 

The Jewish side — elements of which are launching a little info war of their own (see here and here) — will similarly become ever more entrenched in their belief in the irrevocable hostility of Palestinians and their supporters. As the video above demonstrates, this sort of thing makes people want to get violent.

And all it took was a disrupted speech at an American university. Imagine how the folks in the Middle East must feel. 

UPDATE: In a press release yesterday from the Jewish Federation of Orange County (which, ahem, I never received), was the announcement of a new Web site urging action to pressure UCI to, among other things, freeze funding for the Muslim Students Union and launch an investigation of their role in the incident. Like everyone connected to this matter, the Web site tries to claim the mantle of — what else — free speech. It’s name? WeWontBeSilenced. Infowarriors, en garde!

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