Thursday, February 3, 2011

Appropriate Repercussions

Students protest in support of their UC Irvine classmates, who were disciplined… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

In February 2010, the Israeli Ambassador to the US gave a talk at the University of California at Irvine. The talk was disrupted by a group of students who were members of a UCI student group called the Muslim Student Union. They were rude, standing up in succession, one after another, shouting anti-Israel slogans. They were removed one by one, by campus police. The students apparently lied to an investigative panel and said that the protest hadn't been pre-organized by the MSU, when all indicators were that it had been. The students were disciplined and the organization was suspended for a quarter. The suspension just ended but the organization is now on probation for two full years. In the scheme of things in a university setting, this was serious punishment for an entire group of students because of the misdeeds of a few. The only other student organizations in the history of the UC Irvine to have earned such sanctions were involved in hazing or alcohol related-events that brought harm or risk of harm. 

Yesterday, in a series of articles and a pointed opinion piece, the LA Times reported that the Orange County District Attorney is seeking to file charges against the 11 students before the statutory time limit of one year runs out on February 8th. They've empaneled a grand jury to look into filing charges, presumably felony charges, according to some reports.

This afternoon I received an impassioned email from Jewish Voice for Peace's Emily Ratner, who declares that she and four other students behaved in a similar manner at the Jewish Federation's General Assembly last year in New Orleans protesting what she characterizes as humans rights abuses and even war crimes, in Gaza. She and her companions were also forcibly removed from the assembly room. However, she notes:

"We challenged the same government, and spoke for the same values of human rights and equality. We both interrupted speakers representing a foreign government. 
But while my fellow Jewish protesters and I were removed from the hall and faced no punishment beyond some bruises from the attacks of audience members, these students saw their group suspended by the University, an unheard of step in a case that did not involve hazing or alcohol abuse. And more shocking, they may face criminal charges that would remain on their records forever." 

As of this writing, 321 UC Irvine students, alumni, staff and faculty have signed a petition asking Orange Country DA Tony Rackaukas not to charge the UCI 11. Some of the signatures are using the petition as a platform for further negative rhetoric against Israel, which is unfortunate, but a number ask about what is going on with freedom of speech, etc. Ernest Chermerinsky, the Dean of the UCI Law School says that the issue isn't about freedom speech and expression at all, but rather appropriate punishment. His take is that the students weren't really exercising freedom of expression but that their university-determined punishment is quite sufficient. The LA Times concurred, stating:

"Is it really necessary to threaten the futures of students who engaged in a nonviolent protest that didn't, ultimately, stop Oren from delivering his remarks? These students have been punished already, in an effort to make clear the difference between legitimate protest and their unacceptable actions. We hope they've learned a lesson. Now it's time to move on."

The entire business hits home for me because of what I know happened to a group of students here at the University of Miami after they protested with workers hired by UNICCO as janitors, who were not receiving health care benefits and had to bear substandard wages and unsafe working conditions. In keeping with such strikes in other institutions, some students joined the striking workers, including some workers on a hunger strike. Many of the students who did so were penalized (and most people would say very unfairly so) by the University. They were not, however, arrested and charged with any crimes.

It's evidently a lot to ask that institutions teach their students that fine line between impassioned political interest/advocacy of human rights and inappropriate behavior. (At least it was a lot for the University of Miami.... and it wasn't even clear the students had done anything inappropriate, either.) But UC Irvine was willing and able to do that and seems to feel it has done so well enough and doesn't want its students penalized legally in a way that might impair their future goals.

I'm with them. Recognizing appropriate repercussions for mideeds is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy. Charging these students for their disruptive behavior would mark the rule of law in Orange County to be on the same path that we've see on the streets of Cairo, Tehran and other places where non-violent protests have been met with arrest and pumped up charges for citizens or foreign nationals speaking out.

Let's try to be different, shall we?

You can sign Emily Ratner's petition at Jewish Voice for Peace.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

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