Published December 11, 2006
Raymond Tanter, a former professor in the political science department who currently teaches at Georgetown University, delivered a talk a week and a half ago about the issues surrounding diplomacy with Iran. Better than anything Tanter said, however, attendees probably recall the actions of some pro-Palestinian activists who attended the event, which was sponsored by the American Movement for Israel.
Citing the University's policy on freedom of speech and artistic expression, event organizers repeatedly asked that audience members pose questions respectfully and abide by the policy's guidelines. That policy permits heckling, but it forbids actions that unduly interfere with a lecturer's communication with the audience. Despite these requests, continued angry shouts triggered a domino effect that ended with multiple arrests and allegations of police brutality.
It is admirable that the University maintains a policy that attempts to preserve the free speech of speakers and dissenters alike. If fairly and correctly administered, that policy can avoid undue abridgements of expression while making removal of disruptive individuals a last resort. But though the policy is designed to mediate situations like this one, its application rarely ends up satisfying anyone.
Expressing opinions openly and passionately is a practice central to the goals of the University. But defining the difference between emotionally charged activism and outright disrespect that shuts down discussion shouldn't have to be contentious. Take, for instance, an unpopular event earlier this semester, the "Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day" sponsored by Young Americans for Freedom. Counter-protesters who considered the event racist drowned out the YAF chair's voice with chants whenever he tried to speak - giving ammunition to ideologues convinced that progressives are out to suppress any thought they deem politically incorrect.
Making one's case with intrusive shouts and unrelenting interruptions that seek to shut down an opposing view is, generally speaking, an unproductive means of making a point. The pro-Palestinian activists had every right to attend Tanter's event, ask tough questions and hold up signs - but the fracas that eventually played out probably hasn't done much to advance their cause.