The front of Thursday's National section featured a long, mostly sympathetic piece from the perspective of the shouting students by Jennifer Medina in Irvine, California: "Charges Against Muslim Students Prompt Debate Over Free Speech ."
The Times has never been overly concerned about the free speech rights of campus conservatives, as shown in this February 25, 2004 article, "Columbia President Denounces Racially Offensive Incidents ." One of those "racially offensive incidents" was a harmless "affirmative action bake sale," which charged higher prices to white students and lower prices to black, Hispanic, and females. The conservative students at Columbia University (who knew?) were forced to apologize for the stunt, though no one was threatened or shouted down.
Yet today the Times rode to the defense of a Muslim group that conspired to disrupt a speech it disagreed with - and ironically used free speech arguments in support of the group.
When administrators at the University of California, Irvine, decided to suspend the Muslim Student Union for a quarter over the disruption of a speech last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, most thought the latest controversy on campus had ended. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas of Orange County, however, disagreed - and filed misdemeanor criminal charges last week against the 11 student protesters, accusing them of disturbing a public meeting and engaging in a conspiracy to do so.The article featured two sympathetic head shots of students involved, as if they were the one's being persecuted, not the diplomat they tried to stop from speaking.
The charges have not only reignited campus debate about the event but have also prompted a feisty argument about the role of free speech on a college campus, in this case one whose politics can seem as complicated as peace negotiations in the Middle East.
"People are afraid to be seen as with us. It's like they went after them, how do we know they aren't going to come after us next? Everyone is afraid and looking over their shoulder." - Hamza Siddiqui, A leader of the Muslim Student Union
"It's the saddest thing to have to tell someone, yes it's O.K. and it's safe for you to come." - Hadeer Soliman, A 21-year-old senior
Medina laid out the scene:
When the ambassador, Michael B. Oren, came to speak last February, several students stood up, one at a time, and interrupted him with shouted complaints about Israel. When the repeated outbursts continued deep into Mr. Oren's speech, the ambassador huddled with his security aides to decide whether to continue speaking. He did, but by the time the speech was over, 11 Muslim students had been arrested. The group became known as the "Irvine 11," although three were students from University of California, Riverside.
To her credit, Medina eventually talked to the other side who find the Muslim Student Union threatening and printed some pithy details showing just how radical the MSU is.
For years, Jewish and Israeli advocacy groups have said that the Muslim Student Union has fostered a hostile environment on campus. In 2007, the Office of Civil Rights of the federal Department of Education examined complaints from the Zionist Organization of America that the university was not doing enough to respond to the problem. The investigation cleared the campus administration of any wrongdoing. In 2009, the same organization complained that an event sponsored by the Muslim Student Union was used to raise money for an organization that helps Hamas, the Islamic militant group, in Gaza. The university asked the F.B.I. to investigate, but no charges were ever filed.
Much of the controversy on campus centers on Palestinian Awareness Week, which the Muslim Student Union has sponsored each spring. In the past, the week has included bloody Israeli flags and speeches delivered under signs that read "Holocaust in the Holy Land" and "Israel - the Fourth Reich."
Many students came to dread the events, which some began to refer to as "hate week." A few students have said they felt uncomfortable walking across campus wearing a Star of David or any other overtly Jewish symbol during the week. Some have had loud shouting matches, while others have chosen to stay home and avoid campus altogether.
But then it was on to more special pleading for the speech squelchers:
Muslim students say that they have faced stricter scrutiny from the administration than other student groups and that they, too, face harsh language. Last spring, several students complained about a large poster on campus comparing the Muslim Student Union to Hamas and Hezbollah. A similar flier included a photograph of several students.
Because the group was suspended this fall, it was difficult to recruit new members. Now, some leaders said, some students are reluctant to get involved out of fear of repercussions.