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When 1st Amendment Rights Collide

Like any good Constitutionalist, I have been following the trial of the “Irvine 11“. The trial, which began last week pits competing 1st Amendment rights against each other.

Last year in February, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was invited by several campus groups, including  “Anteaters for Israel”, to speak on the UC Irvine campus. The speech was political and sure to be controversial, as it encompassed the Israeli state and the issue of Palestinian statehood. It was expected that there would be a protest of some sort by pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli groups.

The group centered in the spotlight consisted of members of the Muslim Students Union. Eleven members of the group, including three students from UC Riverside, participated in the protest which consisted of slogans shouted out by each protester, one after the other with the intention of expressing their views of Oren’s speech. The protesters were, of course, escorted out of the audience by campus police, who were waiting en masse in the aisles. They were patted down and arrested. University officials subsequently sanctioned the Muslim Student Union and the specific individuals involved. That’s as far as it should have gone, but it didn’t.

For whatever reasons, the Orange County District Attorney’s office chose to prosecute the protesters for disrupting the Israeli ambassador’s speech. The specific charges were, conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and disrupting a meeting, both misdemeanors that could result in fines and probation. It did not take long for the case to gain international recognition and support, with several youtube videos going viral and even  Jewish news services apparently supporting the students’ rights.


Because, universally, the world recognizes the Muslim Students right to free speech.

Our forefathers were wise men. I believe that the Constitution, as written, is as valid today as it was over 200 years ago when George Washington said, “I don’t expect this Constitution to last more than 20 years.” George wasn’t infallible, just a great Father of our Country. If he were alive today, he would be proud that our Constitution has not only lasted this long but has been the framework for numerous other constitutions of countries around the world. He would also be proud that our Constitution has lasted largely untouched for so long. We have the oldest unchanged government in existence. In fact, constitutions change so frequently that over 100 have been  written since 1970. Even our old “friend”, France, has had 10 governments in the same timeframe. El Salvador has had 36 written constitutions since 1824.

The protection for our Constitution has been attributed to the first Ten Amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights. The 1st Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Pretty plain speaking, as the framers of the Constitution were. The 1st Amendment is a fundamental right of the people and cannot be abridged.

But, what about when two parties claim 1st Amendment Rights to free speech as the parties in this case have? Where is the line drawn? If we look at history, then we can find the answer. When I was (much) younger, Angela Davis was the communist du jour, speaking often at the Berkley campus of UC. Her speeches were radical, insightful, and downright unamerican. I was a patriot and had just joined the military service during Vietnam. To me, her speeches at the time bordered on traitorous activity. She had been arrested several times for her open advocation of communism and Ronald Reagan attempted to have her barred from teaching at any US university. I look back and see that I had a narrow view of an intelligent  and thoughtful person. At the time, she was respected by many intellectuals around the world. 40 years later, she has my respect. And, so do the Irvine 11.

I may not agree with their message. However, I will defend with my life their right to convey their message in a peaceful manner. That is because free speech is fundamental to a free society. While we may be reminded of the old adage that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater, that was not the case here. These students, in the best tradition of university protest, made a unique display of demonstration and stood for what they believe in. It does not matter if you or I believe their message. Whatever the message, they had a right to be heard. And, the Orange County District Attorney and the University of California Irvine chose to squelch those rights. We, as a free society, cannot allow that to happen.

What about Michael Oren’s right to speak? Let’s not forget that he was able to complete his speech and, although the prosecution says he did not get to finish the question and answer session afterward, the defense says his real reason for leaving so early was because he wanted to attend the Lakers game. In fact, the defense was barred from showing the jury a photo of Oren with Kobe Bryant. Go figure. The case is in the jury’s hands at this writing.

If you have a view, disparate or concurrent, please comment.