Peaceful Protest or Free Speech Violation?

It seems the past few weeks have demanded some clarification of the term “peaceful protest.” As the Muslim Student Union exemplified last year, there appears to be a fine line between protesting and autocratic silencing of dissenting opinion.

The Michael Oren interruptions, orchestrated by  MSU leadership, were not examples of “peaceful protesting.” For one, to call a protest “peaceful” simply because it lacks physical violence is a simplistic and near-sighted way to view things. At the heart of its purpose, a protest is more or less a form of expression designed to present an alternative viewpoint to a relevant event or speaker. As college universities are often termed “marketplaces of ideas,” this is perfectly fine and even expected. Had the MSU students been arrested for simply protesting outside the venue of the event or for standing up and walking out in a group, then this article would instead be focusing on why those students should not be prosecuted.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. What the MSU forgot is that free speech is a two-way street. Protesting something is completely fine provided that you respect the people of the opposing narrative’s right to have their message heard as well. Based on the MSU leadership’s warped interpretation of the First Amendment, I should be allowed to attend one of their events and blow an airhorn for as long and loud as I care to. Free speech, mate!

If this ideology defined our free speech laws, then any speaker could be lawfully silenced by a heckler’s veto, as Erwin Chemerinsky has said. So when a protest takes such a form as to impede on the other party’s ability to voice their opinion, it stops being a protest and starts looking more like something out of Stalinist Russia.

The students trying to defend the interrupters of Michael Oren are, amazingly, portraying them as “innocent” students who only engaged in “peaceful protest” and “free speech.” Nope. Wind the clock back to last year, just after the second police investigation into the Muslim Student Union. It unearthed a string of e-mails on the MSU executive board listserv planning in detail how to “disrupt [the Michael Oren event] throughout the whole time … regardless of what admin/police choose to do.”

The e-mails can all be read online and portray an intricate, three-page “planned/calculated response” utilizing cell phones, index cards, cameras, strategic seating placement, and explaining how to react when arrested, all in order to disrupt a diplomat who represented a state they didn’t like. And before the Michael Oren event took place, university officials spoke with representatives of the MSU asking them not to disrupt the event; the MSU lied and said that they would not. To try and convince people that these students are innocent is insulting. It’s low. It’s cowardly, it’s dishonest, and from the standpoint of someone whose job is based on factual integrity, it’s disgusting.

But should they be prosecuted? The Orange County district attorney’s Web site lists two specific California penal codes the disrupting students violated: Penal codes § 403 and 182.  Penal code § 403 dictates that anyone who “willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly … not unlawful in its character … is guilty of a misdemeanor,” that the offenders must have “substantially impaired the conduct of the meeting,” and do not have to engage in violent or dangerous behavior in order to be charged.  Penal code § 182 deems it illegal for anyone to conspire to commit a crime, ‘conspire’ being defined in the code as “a specific intent crime requiring an intent to conspire or agree, and a further intent to commit the target crime.” The legal case against the students is airtight, and the only defense their supporters have is that the prosecution is “unnecessary.”

I have to both agree and disagree. Anyone who breaks the law should, naturally, be brought to trial for it. University punishment is not and should not be a substitute for legal punishment. No one deserves to be held exempt from the law, least of all such petty and narrow-minded students as the ones in question.

At the same time, the context and history surrounding these students and their organization makes me think this prosecution is only going to do more bad than good. In all probability, the students will be brought to trial, charged and found guilty. But what will it do in the long run? The actions of the MSU — both their calculated disruptions and the deceit they’ve used to portray themselves as victims of oppression — belie a petty thought process that they deserve to be heard over people who disagree with them, and that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions for the simple and pure fact that they were standing up to injustice, or fighting apartheid, or whatever new snazzy slogan they’ll come up with this week.

No court sentence will purge their leadership of that undeveloped form of thinking. These students — and let’s not forget their club’s leadership orchestrated the entire thing — don’t deserve a court trial. They don’t deserve the status of ‘criminals.’ And they certainly don’t deserve all the press that comes with it. No, their actions, born of an immature and undeveloped inability to listen to a dissenting opinion without trying to make theirs louder, only deserve to be forgotten. To fall so far into obscurity that in a year’s time, no one will even remember what they did. We don’t need a court sentence to understand the short-sighted machinations of the MSU leadership, their vicious motivations and hateful trains of thought. Their annual anti-Israel program does all of that for them in the space of a week. I say let them be forgotten. It’s the best they deserve.

AE Anteater is a fifth-year English major. He can be reached at emailremoved@uci.edu.