We write to report a recent injury to free expression at UC Irvine law school, and to seek your support in enforcing our First Amendment rights. As our own dean, and as a nationally renowned scholar on these issues, we hope that you will embrace our mutual interest in protecting unfettered debate on our campus – especially when it comes to important and contested issues like Israel/Palestine.
On Monday, October 12, Aharon Barak, former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court delivered a lecture at UC Irvine titled “The Nature and Characteristic of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.” UC Irvine previously invited Barak in March 16, of this year as inaugural lecturer of the new “Judge Stephen Reinhardt and Ramona Ripston Lecture on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties,” a series of lectures meant to honor two people who have “fought for and preserved civil liberties for decades,” as “legendary advocates of civil liberty and justice.”
In our view, Aharon Barak could not be farther from an advocate for civil liberty and justice because, as Nimer Sultany writes in “The Legacy of Justice Aharon Barak: A Critical Review” for the Harvard International Law Journal, Barak has been complicit and in many times an active force in human rights violations in occupied Palestine. These include but are not limited to: confiscation of land and colonization; a system of de facto and de jure segregation; a refusal to indict ruthless Zionist dictators who have slaughtered innocent civilians; a military court system virtually immune from the Israeli Supreme Court’s intervention; a widespread and long-standing policy of house demolition; extrajudicial executions; detention – including administrative detention – of large numbers of Palestinians and inhumane conditions of incarceration and torture; the creation of the apartheid wall; and countless deportations.
When we raised our concerns with you in March in regards to Barak’s inaugural lecture, you replied that “A college campus should have a wide array of speakers and as long as I am dean, UCI Law School will continue to do so.” Oddly, the “wide array of speakers” includes the same individual invited to speak twice. But regardless of our disagreement over whether Barak should be given a platform to speak as a civil rights honoree, and regardless of our viewpoint of Barak’s actions as an Israeli supreme court justice, we hope you will agree that as UCI students, we have a right to listen to him speak and object to his ideas. UCI denied us this right.
At the March event, students who are part of “Irvine Divest” – a coalition of students who support divestment from Israel to enforce Israel’s obligations under international law – were present outside Barak’s lecture to distribute fliers. We were immediately met with police who demanded that we cease flyering and leave the event in order to avoid any conflict. The police illegally told us that we were not allowed to flyer, and ordered us to leave the premises. Due to heavy police presence we had no choice but to obey the police and leave the premise, fearing our safety.
At the October 12 event, we faced similar suppression. The event was initially advertised as a public event; for those who registered as well as a walk-in option available on a first come first serve basis. At 7 PM, a friend of our coalition who was not obviously identifiable as someone holding opposing views to Barak, approached the entrance to see if they were accepting walk-ins. The people staffing the entrance immediately allowed him to enter, and told him there were vacant seats. Obviously identifiable members of our group then proceeded to attempt to enter the event as unregistered walk-ins because there were empty seats but the staffers denied us entrance. The staffers took down the “walk-in” sign and informed us that there was no vacancy. However, we were able to observe through the window into the event venue that there were vacant seats. At around 7:15, about five UCIPD officers arrived, demanding to speak to the “leaders” of our group. The officer notified the students that there were no seats available at the event. But one of us personally took the police officer and showed him that there were, in fact, plenty of seats open. The officer then spoke to the event organizers and seemed to stall as long as possible, continuously telling us the staffers will go recount the number of vacant seats. When the officer finally allowed 6-9 of us into the event, it was 7:50, the event was ending, and people were leaving. As people walked out of the event, they shouted xenophobic, racist, and islamophobic remarks at us, such as, calling all the students “terrorists,” “Why don’t you bring knives next time?”, and “Why are you all in America?”. Meanwhile as students, we remained silent despite one man getting physically close to the students holding posters, while the police stood and watched, not taking action to protect students who felt their safety endangered.
As you know, the university is obligated under the First Amendment, and under basic pedagogical principles, to provide all students with equal access to the university’s resources, without discriminating based on viewpoint. Twice now, the university has denied us our First Amendment rights – – first the university denied us our right to express ideas in opposition to Justice Barak, and in the latter instance, the university denied us our right to attend the Barak lecture – based clearly on our viewpoint in opposition to his message. The chilling effect of this suppression runs deep in our community and has far reaching ripple effects to intimidate and silence those who wish to express support for Palestinian rights on our campus.
We ask you to uphold fundamental free speech rights. How do you plan to remedy the denial of our basic rights as students? Will you provide us a forum to express our opposition to Barak’s message? Will you make it clear to the UCI community that advocacy for Palestinian rights is a welcome contribution to the educational environment?