A Heckling Occupation

December 6, 2011

When a group of University of California at Irvine students carried out a planned disruption of a campus speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States in February 2010, not only did the university suspend the Muslim Student Union, which organized the protest, but 10 of the 11 students arrested that day were ultimately found guilty of misdemeanors in an Orange County court – for conspiring to disrupt a public speech, and disrupting it, in effect censoring the speaker.

After the students were found guilty in September, some speculated that the whole episode would have a chilling effect on campuses and those who protest there. Others have worried about the tactic of repeatedly heckling a campus speaker, seeing such an approach as antithetical to the free exchange of ideas in higher education. Yet when a group of primarily Occupy UMass students orchestrated a strikingly similar protest at a lecture advocating capitalism as a solution to global problems Thursday at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the scene played out much differently. A few protesters were escorted out (some temporarily), and that was pretty much it.

Following public outrage over videos documenting police using pepper spray and batons on Occupy protesters at the Universities of California at Davis and Berkeley, many colleges are likely reassessing how they respond to demonstrators. For instance, David Van Zandt, president of The New School, recently went out of his way to avoid arrests of Occupy protesters – and acknowledged that he might have learned something from the incidents in California.

But an Amherst spokesman says that while judgment calls are inevitable in responding to different protest situations, the goal is never to make arrests.

“What we try to do is strike this balance between making sure people would have their opportunity to express dissenting opinions and making sure an event can continue on. That’s reading a particular situation, and giving people appropriate warnings, and deciding what the best thing to do is,” Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said. “Our first instinct is not to arrest people, it’s to try to facilitate the discussion to get to the next place, and not to have people interrupted.”

To that end, when dozens of protesters led by students from the labor studies department orchestrated call-and-response chants for several minutes, reciting the contents of anti-capitalist literature they’d prepared, they were eventually asked to leave and ultimately did so. But when other protesters spent the next hour interrupting the lecture every few minutes to lead chants or speak out of turn and/or beyond the time allocated, police started escorting people out. Organizers and protesters also heckled each other during the event.

It’s not a far cry from what happened at Irvine: students, one after another, rose to shout criticisms of Israel to audience applause. (Officials had asked them to stop, too. Cue arrests.)

Nathan Fatal, president of the New England Objectivist Society, the student group that co-hosted the Amherst event, is personally lobbying the chancellor to issue further punishment. In a letter to Robert C. Holub, Fatal argued that some of the protesters violated the student conduct code by interfering with university business and violating guidelines of civility and respect.

“The culture at UMass is not friendly to this kind of event. They’re not friendly to objectivists or Republicans or libertarians or anyone that’s not left of center, basically,” Fatal said. “Opposition was expected, protesting was expected, but an organized and disruptive protest by a large group of people was not expected – nor was the intense show of disrespect that they showed themselves capable of.”

Blaguszewski was aware of the letter and said the chancellor would defer the issue of further repercussions back to the dean of students’ office, which addresses code violations. The spokesman said he wasn’t sure whether the protesters’ actions were under review.

The disruption also appears to be a new tactic for the student Occupy movement, which, while mostly unlinked from campus to campus, has generally favored teach-ins, marches or even walk-outs – methods that, while not exactly indiscreet, don’t have a primary purpose of preventing other people from speaking. (Of course, that’s what got the Irvine protesters into trouble – violating rights of speech freedom.)  In California, students have disrupted board meetings, but nothing designed for academic discourse on campus.

Andrew S. Bernstein, the visiting professor of philosophy from Marist College who gave the lecture, said hecklers are perfectly justified in speaking out during the question and answer session. But when they start violating a presenter’s right to free speech, he said, it becomes a problem.

“That behavior is simply uncivilized, and should not be tolerated by anybody on any campus, certainly not on a college campus where freedom of intellectual expression should be sacred,” Bernstein said, adding that Amherst did the right thing – even if the response was a little slow. “I think anybody who chooses disruption over intellectual debate makes clear by their actions their own recognition that they do not have the arguments to refute their opponent. If they were confident in their arguments, they would challenge me to a debate.”

Occupy UMass could not be reached for comment, but one protester told the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, that while the tactic was controversial, the ends justified the means. “I think there’s an obligation to a common justice and fairness in this community,” the student said. “I really truly think the ideas we support are in the interest of the majority.”

Another added, “What they were saying was not in the interest of our school. We’re a public school. We’re not in support of the destruction of the public sector.”

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