OpinionSchools & Higher Education

How campus Jewish groups can defeat the heckler’s veto

Those who disrupt Jewish and pro-Israel events can and should be held accountable.

Pro-Palestinian students disrupt an Israel event on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. Credit: Ariana Rowlands/Campus Reform.
Pro-Palestinian students disrupt an Israel event on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. Credit: Ariana Rowlands/Campus Reform.
Stuart Brotman. Credit: Courtesy.
Stuart N. Brotman
Stuart N. Brotman is the former chairman of the US-Israel Science and Technology Foundation. He is the author of The First Amendment Lives On.

Jewish organizers of campus events that highlight the atrocities of Oct. 7 are increasingly experiencing the same scenario: Anti-Israel and antisemitic protesters show up to disrupt invited speakers. At times, the speaker is not able to even begin their talk or is forced to leave the stage before the program ends.

Inevitably, after the chaos ensues, the often-masked group gleefully leaves en masse with flags and banners held high. They boast on social media that they merely asserted their First Amendment rights. Why, they demand to know, should anyone want to silence them as they spew invective against Israel and Jews?

As the hecklers no doubt hoped, attendees and organizers are often understandably confused and dispirited by this blatant intimidation. They often fear that holding a similar event in the future might result in the same harassment.

This need not be the case. Jewish campus organizers should adopt an aggressive strategy for confronting those who attempt to exercise the “heckler’s veto.” One successful strategy was used effectively at the University of California Irvine (UCI) in 2010 and should be adopted nationwide.

In 2010, then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren was invited to UCI to give a speech and was confronted with a tsunami of disruption. The chants of the pro-Palestinian disruptors should sound familiar: “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” and “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!”

The “protesters” at this event were not a random group that just happened to show up. As they do today, the hecklers organized their attack via emails and in-person meetings to ensure that the event was sabotaged.

But the incident teaches an important lesson: Such actions can have consequences and those involved can be punished. The applicable laws and codes of conduct are already available. They simply need to be enforced. This not only penalizes the disruptors but helps deter others who are planning further disruptions.

First, event organizers should post a short statement online when registration is confirmed. They should read it again at the beginning of the event itself.

“This event is organized to be held without disruptions that will prevent it from being conducted as planned,” it should say. “Any interference with the program, whether by visual or aural means, will be considered a voluntary action to be dealt with immediately.”

Most importantly, the statement should then say, “We encourage those who are having their experience undermined by any disrupting individuals to utilize their smartphones immediately to begin recording the disruptions. These recordings should be posted widely on social media. They also can and will be used as evidence when the disruptors are reported to university authorities for enforcement of the student code of conduct. Furthermore, they will be provided to local law enforcement authorities to consider prosecution under applicable criminal law.”

This warning may not ensure that the event proceeds without disruption, but it will provide potential disruptors with a chance to have second thoughts.

If the disruptors ignore the warning, organizers should follow through and see to it that consequences result.

At UCI, the disruptors were reported for violations of the student code of conduct. Campus administrators could no longer turn a blind eye, as they often do regarding disruptions of pro-Israel events. The formal complaint forced them to investigate whether any code of conduct violations occurred.

The violations were so blatant that administrators were unable to ignore them. They had no choice but to discipline some of the students involved and suspend the campus Muslim Student Union—some of whose members participated in the disruption—for an academic quarter.

Then criminal law kicked in. Ten students, including some from other universities, were prosecuted for their illegal actions. All were found guilty of a misdemeanor count of conspiring to disrupt speech and a second count of actually doing so. They were each sentenced to three years probation and 56 hours of community service. They were also fined.

Not surprisingly, the defendants portrayed themselves as martyrs and non-violent free speech advocates. Their lawyers absurdly likened their actions to the civil disobedience actions of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. The lawyers also argued that a guilty verdict would stifle student activism at colleges nationwide. These claims were self-evidently preposterous and the jury easily saw through them.

Both applicable law and common sense prevailed. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas rightly said that the students’ behavior amounted to censorship and “thuggery.”

“In a civilized society,” he stated, “we cannot allow lawful assemblies to be shut down by a small group of people using the heckler’s veto.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, who served as founding dean of UCI School of Law, agreed that, while he would have preferred only academic penalties, speech used to squelch another’s speech is not constitutionally protected. He also acknowledged that the students in question had broken the law.

As similar situations arise, Jewish event organizers should consult in advance with campus and local police to make sure that they are aware of applicable law and university policies. This can help facilitate the apprehension of disruptors at the scene, allowing an event to continue as planned. Formal complaints, disciplinary proceedings and criminal prosecutions are also essential to ensuring the applicable codes and laws are enforced.

Michael Oren was allowed to speak again at a UCI Irvine event. This proves the effectiveness of demanding such enforcement. Jewish event organizers on campus need not be intimidated. They have the tools at their disposal to hold disruptors accountable for violating their rights. They should use them.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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