OC Register Editorial

Friday, June 1, 2007

Today’s editorial: UCI falls short on a test of leadership

Defending free speech is responsible, but so is denouncing hateful speech.

An Orange County Register editorial

We’re used to seeing disturbing pictures of angry political conflict from the Middle East, but not used to seeing such anger here in Orange County. Specifically, we’ve been a bit shocked by ongoing events at UC Irvine where Muslim and Jewish students have been in a state of simmering conflict, stemming in part from a series of Muslim speakers and protests highly critical of Israel.

Unfortunately, the school administration seems to be punting in its response – firm in its defense of free speech, to its credit, yet reluctant to criticize clearly objectionable behavior and actions. Both are in order.

Jewish groups say they feel intimidation on campus. The Register’s Opinion pages have carried letters and columns debating whether UCI has a safe atmosphere for Jewish students, after incendiary words were uttered by some invited Islamist speakers, a Holocaust memorial was defaced and some other incidents. Muslim students were the ones complaining this week, regarding a Bren Events Center program sponsored by UCI Republicans that featured three self-proclaimed former terrorists who denounced Islamic fundamentalism. Reports indicate that security was intense.

Several hundred Jewish students and leaders met Wednesday night with UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake. “We promote dialogue, understanding, growth and tolerance at UCI,” he said, according to a Register report. “We have 1,000 guest speakers on campus every year. Could I evaluate them and say this one is anti-Semitic? I could not. What I could say is that as a person and a campus, we abhor hate speech, period.”

We applaud the chancellor’s unwillingness to abridge free speech. We believe that debate – even angry, tense debate – can be a good thing. Once you get into the business of outlawing “hate speech,” then that stifles freedom and allows officials to depict any words they don’t like as “hate.” Still, the administration needs to do more as the situation continues to affect campus life on a wider scale. Think about it – parents of students and potential students are beginning to develop a generalized fear about UCI. People on campus regularly tell us the tension is growing, and is not just periodic.

It’s the role of the school administration to draw distinctions between speech and actions, and to set some standards of behavior at meetings, in the classroom, in the dorms.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, has been actively monitoring the situation at UCI. He attended a recent speech by one invitee of the Muslim Students Union, where he tried to openly videotape the event despite a UCI policy allowing the student group to forbid such taping. In a letter sent to the chancellor this week, Mr. DeVore wrote, “Hate speech is, of course, protected under the First Amendment. That said, it is incumbent on community leaders, including leaders of the academic community, to criticize or condemn hate speech as it happens because such speech can easily lead to acts of violence.”

If the chancellor is unwilling to do that, Mr. DeVore argues, then he should at least eliminate the campus policy – specific to UCI but not other UC campuses – that allows student groups to ban the recording of public events. Perhaps if these speakers knew that their speeches could be viewed on YouTube.com, he reasons, they might be more inclined to engage in civil debate rather than angry diatribes.

Not a bad idea, and one of a number that should be considered as a fuller, deeper response to what is happening on campus. Speech should be open on college campuses, but such speech should also be freely disseminated, discussed and criticized – without fear.

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