Jarret S. Lovell is a Cal State Fullerton professor of politics, UC Irvine graduate and radio show host and longtime Orange County progressive activist. Among the many causes he has taken up over the years is social justice for Palestinians.
And yet, Lovell has a problem with the students who recently shouted down Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren at his alma mater. As the author of Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience (New York University Press) just told USA Today, "That's definitely not free speech."
A polite email exchange with Lovell Wednesday afternoon produced his reasoning, after the jump . . .
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Last month, student activists lost one of their most influential role models in historian and social activist Howard Zinn. While the author of The People's History of the United States has rightly been identified with progressive politics, his lessons on the morals and efficacy of activism (as well as State responses to activism) apply to students all along the political spectrum. His ideas were relevant when university students debated the war in Vietnam; his words resonated when debating the war in Iraq; and his teachings are certainly relevant for students hoping to find peace between Israel and Palestine.
In 1968, Zinn warned against confusing the tolerance of speech for the tolerance of action. All ideas, "whether odious to us or not" should be tolerated, Zinn wrote. The reason is obvious: "Free speech gives the citizenry the informational base from which they can then make social choices in action." (emphasis added). In other words, limiting the speech of a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a war monger-however natural and moral the instinct may feel-is both misguided and counterproductive. It prevents others who may sympathize with a concern from hearing the hateful speech and becoming motivated to (counter)act; it does not allow a group to fully "get to know" the opponent-understanding an opponent is the best strategy to overcome one. Finally, the logic of censorship (let's call it what it is) is circular. As long as groups continue to shout each other down, they are guaranteed to never have their time at the podium.
Sadly, Zinn's lesson on speech was not only lost on UCI students who heckled Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren; it now appears to be a lesson lost on the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) which has now called for-among other things-an enrollment boycott of UCI for "failing to condemn longstanding anti-Semitic and Israel-bashing speech." I am not sure which position is more perplexing: ZOA's equating speech critical of Israeli policy as anti-Jew (I, by the way, am Jewish) or their demand that a university for all intents and purposes enforce a policy on its political scientists, history professors and the like requiring them to refrain from ever criticizing Israeli domestic or foreign policy.
Of course, if my alma mater is really serious about ensuring that freedom of speech thrives on campus, it will request that OC officials drop any pending charges against the student hecklers. UCI officials will then book a lecture hall and invite representatives from all interested student groups to the podium to air their positions on world affairs. Those students who show up are the ones who really value free speech; those who do not, well... Rather than criminalize student activism, let's encourage more of it. After all, it seems a bit unfair to punish students for failing to learn a lesson that many of their elders-like the ZOA-have yet to learn.