Irvine 11 case: a war of words

Caught in the glare of flashy headlines, it seems that in the last few months the Irvine 11 case has been swept up in a whirlwind of sensationalism. Glamorized rhetoric either deifies the Irvine 11 or demonizes them, with little substance actually dedicated to any underlying issues.

At the very least, the core of the arguments of both the prosecution and the defense has been freedom of speech, with the intricacies left open to interpretation. Some argue that Ambassador Oren’s freedom of speech was compromised; others point out he did eventually return to complete his speech. Same reason the charges against the Irvine 11 are calculated to stifle protest; others assert that the program included a Question-and-Answer session, which attendees could have used to challenge the speaker.

If anything, the case has shifted the paradigm of freedom of speech, raising questions about the role of discourse at an academic institution. Should controversial speakers from any end of the political spectrum be brought to campus, much less sponsored by the University administration to begin with? Is it more or less productive to host such speakers, given that their reputation will more likely get attention than their words?

The opinion remains starkly divided even at the academic level.

According to such institutions as Clark University, among others, the answer to the first question is no. Clark, which prohibited Norman Finklestein, cited potential offense to various student organizations as well as a lack of productivity. In an editorial, President John Basset of Clark University defended the decision with the claim that the presence of contentious speakers “would invite controversy and not dialogue or understanding.” While the consideration is commendable, is it not similarly short-sighted? Is there not a danger to conditioning students so finely that they are entirely unfamiliar with exploring a variety of opinions?

Life beyond university years doesn’t come equipped with an “ignore” button; in the real world, we can’t simply plug our ears and ignore those perspectives which don’t conform to our own paradigms.

Columbia University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the other hand, see it as the responsibility of the university to engage contentious speakers. Columbia, for instance, hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while UCSB invited David Horowitz. Predictably, the speakers elicited strong reactions from assorted student organizations, precisely as Clark University feared. It could also be said, however, that Columbia University and UCSB gave their students an opportunity to confront unconventional opinions, and in doing so, better equipped them for life after receiving their diploma.

Eliminating a certain viewpoint only detracts from the college experience of the students. After all, where can freedom of speech possibly exist if not at a university? An institution specifically designed to house educated discourse and promote the exchange of ideas?

For the same reasons, students who express dissent with the views of a speaker should not be facing criminal charges. What consequences exist for disrupting a speech, if any, should be left to the discretion of that specific university. Involving the District Attorney, who prosecutes transgressions on the order of rape and homicide, is not only tremendously disproportionate, but also wholly counterproductive.

If anything, the criminal trial of the Irvine 11 has escalated campus tensions and polarized the UC Irvine community even further by dramatizing the case as a media spectacle. As such, it sends an entirely inappropriate message from the DA’s office. While only time will tell if the misdemeanor is ever removed from the records of the Irvine 11, the trail of polemic rhetoric and sensational headlines left in the wake of the case, however, have left a tangible dent in campus climate. Instead, the campus should provide a welcoming environment for opinions from all ends of the political spectrum, irrespective of who provides them.

Ultimately, the essays, reports and term papers avalanching down each quarter are specifically devised to cultivate critical thinking; as such, college students should be fully capable of applying the critical faculties they developed through courses to spheres outside the classroom setting, whether it be to the speaker or the dissenters.

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