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Discouraging Jeerers

October 26, 2009

The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited the University of Chicago two weeks ago to deliver a 20 minute speech. It ended up taking him an hour and a half to get through his prepared remarks.

Geert Wilders, a vocally anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker, was able to give his speech when he visited Temple University last week, but the question-and-answer session that followed was cut short.

In both instances, jeering students and other protesters held up the proceedings, as they interrupted the speakers mid-presentation and denounced the controversial visitors’ views. In April, protesters brought former Rep. Tom Tancredo’s talk at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to an end before he even started speaking. Audience jeers interrupted conservative columnist Ann Coulter’s speech at the University of Connecticut in December 2005. Four years earlier, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee was heckled off the stage while delivering a commencement speech at California State University at Sacramento.

Chicago tried to prepare for the possibility that protesters would try to interrupt Olmert's speech. Temple, like many other colleges and universities, had no game plan for discouraging jeers or responding to jeerers.

Chicago tried to discourage interruptions by including a clear warning in an e-mail message sent to all confirmed attendees, included on the back of comment cards and read at the start of the event. In part, it said: "If anybody attempts to disrupt a public event or prevent an invited guest or other recognized speaker from being heard, we will ask that this behavior stop. If that warning is not heeded, we may remove any members of the audience creating the disruption."

Olmert spoke at Chicago on October 15, but it was not until October 20 that Robert J. Zimmer, the university’s president, and Thomas F. Rosenbaum, its provost, wrote a letter to students and faculty and staff members denouncing “disturbing” disruptions to the speech.

They continued: “Any stifling of debate runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom. It is a rupture of the sort that is rare on our campus because of our shared views of the importance of inquiry, discourse, and informed argument.”

The jeerers, though, disagree. To them, the university had already stifled debate by pre-screening questions and banning press and student recordings of the speech.

One jeerer, Ali Abunimah, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and a Chicago alumnus, wrote in the Chicago Maroon that, had the hecklers interrupted “a diplomat or an academic offering a controversial viewpoint,” they indeed would have been muffling free speech. But, he said, because Olmert is “a political leader suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he and fellow protesters “stood for academic freedom, human rights, and justice” by confronting the former Israeli prime minister.

After the Tancredo incident at Chapel Hill earlier this year, Holden Thorp, the chancellor, e-mailed students, faculty and staff expressing regret and disappointment that the former Republican Congressman was unable to speak. "We expect protests about controversial subjects at Carolina.... But we also pride ourselves on being a place where all points of view can be expressed and heard," he wrote. "That didn't happen last night."

Temple has not yet responded to the incident that happened there on October 20, Ray Betzner, assistant director of communications at Temple, confirmed.

But, before the speech, the university issued a statement calling itself “a community of scholars in which freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are valued. We respect the right of our student organizations to invite people who express a wide variety of views and ideas.” If that statement was intended to deter hecklers, it didn’t work.

Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said reminders of an institution’s values can be useful not just in advance of a controversial visitor’s arrival but while he or she is on campus. “I suggest they pass out fliers in the lecture hall saying, ‘The university is committed to free expression and will take firm measures to make sure this event does proceed.’ ”

While serving as president of the University of Wisconsin System from 1980 to 1985, O’Neil had his own experience with hecklers bringing a visitor’s speech to an early end, when protesters shouted down Eldridge Cleaver, a former leader of the Black Panthers, during a lecture on the Madison campus. Cleaver, O’Neil said, was unable to deliver his remarks in full but, “in keeping with the University of Wisconsin’s longstanding commitment to free speech, we said that if Mr. Cleaver wanted to come back to finish his speech, he could.”

Security for that second speech was expensive and, O’Neil said, “it was announced that anybody who disrupted his speech would be escorted out of the auditorium,” but no one disrupted the speech. In fact, “very few people of any persuasion” came to hear Cleaver’s full address. Nonetheless, he said, “we thought, for the record, it was important for the issue of free speech.”

But jeering incidents are rare and impossible to predict.

In October 2006, student protesters at Columbia University stormed the stage and brought a lecture by Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project, to an early end.

When Wilders visited Columbia last week, just a day after being heckled off the stage at Temple, he spoke without incident. A few protesters stood outside the auditorium where he delivered his speech, but no one heckled him inside.

John Tucker, a Columbia spokesman, said in an e-mail message that the university "strongly support[s] the right of students to invite guest speakers of interest to them onto campus," whether the Minuteman founder, Wilders or, in 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "The university works to protect the speech rights of students and their guests by establishing practices to ensure that such events take place as planned and occur within an environment that honors the need for civil discourse within our academic community."

The Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR), which sponsored the Wilders event, issued a statement applauding students’ calm. “Columbia students, passionate as they are, have an admirable respect for dialogue and CUCR believes that is exactly what took place last night…. The students, instead of shouting down Wilders like those at Temple did on Tuesday, expressed their passionate views regarding Wilders through thoughtful questions and constructive inquiry.”

This story has been updatedto include new information about how the University of Chicago prepared for possible interruptions.

 

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