On February 8, 2010 the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was invited to the University of California Irvine by the UCI Law School and the Political Science Department to give a public address. During the address he was systematically interrupted by Muslim students, who did nothing more than heckle him in a robust manner over Israel’s criminal violence in the occupied territories. Oren himself has served in the IDF and was a military spokesman and media relations officer duringthe 2006 Israel-Lebanon and 2008/9 Israel-Gaza conflicts.
A video of their protest can be seen here. The eleven students, later dubbed the ‘Irvine 11’, were one by one removed from the room, to both cheers and boos, whilst Oren completed his address.
What followed is nothing less than indictment upon America’s claim to free speech, the First Amendment of the US constitution and its system of justice. The eleven students were prosecuted, and on 23rd September 2011, they were found guilty of conspiring to disrupt – and then disrupting – the ambassador’s speech.
The prosecuting District Attorney said the students had violated the 1st Amendment by substantially limiting Oren’s ability to communicate his ideas. He argued that censorship of ideas “breaks down a free exchange of information” and that the defendants were the censors.
The case put the free speech of eleven students, accounting the representative of a powerful militarised political entity, against the free speech of that representative – who enjoys diplomatic immunity and a powerful political and economic support base in the United States – and came down on the side of the powerful against the weak.
The very fact that these students were prosecuted shocked many, particularly when Barack Obama can be heckled with impunity, and non-Muslims who heckled Netanyahu a year before were not prosecuted.
America has just proved that it has a two-tier system of justice for Muslims and non-Muslims – hardly surprising when one understands the perverse injustice meted out on African Americans.
It has proved that it prioritises the ‘rights’ of the powerful over the weak.
It has proved that its own previously ‘sacrosanct’ First Amendment of its constitution is worth less than its support for its increasingly embarrassing and murderous ally.
It has proved that ‘freedom of speech’ is not for all – it is subject to political considerations.
Thank God these ten students [the charges were dropped against the eleventh] have not been imprisoned, and merely face community service and a modest fine – along with the fact they will hold criminal records.
The injustice they have been subjected to is one I am certain they will bear with dignity and honour, knowing that their brave sacrifice is small as compared with the dead and orphaned children of Palestine, whose case they tried to raise.
Moreover, their bravery has shattered the illusions [or delusions] of many people in America who have seen such manifest hypocrisy and double standards.
Yet the biggest casualty is the values America claims it upholds. When one takes a principle – that America proudly claims is one of its defining features – and violates it for political interests [just as has happened in Britain in some of its arrests under the Terrorism act] it demeans those values, showing its own public and the world alike that they are not actually as important or robust as they were formally claimed to be.
I do not believe that those who welcome this conviction really appreciate the longer term implications of this verdict; or that America is a weaker place than it was before this trial took place.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at email@example.com