Friday, April 23, 2010

Speech by Erwin Chemerinsky

Gary Fouse

Tuesday night this week, UC-Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky spoke at a local synagogue on the on-going controversy over the Muslim Student Union and the question of free speech. Prior to coming to UCI, Chemerinsky had been quoted a few years ago as saying he saw no anti-Semitism at the school, a claim he repeated in writing in the wake of the February 8th disruption of the Israeli ambassador's speech, an incident which has aroused world-wide attention and a lot of negative publicity for the school. I was in attendance Tuesday and had the chance to ask a question. Actually, it was more of a comment.

After briefing the audience on the activities of his newly-inaugurated law school at UCI, Chemerinsky addressed the issue of the on-going controversy of the activities of the Muslim Student Union at UCI including the February 8th disruption of the Israeli ambassador's speech.

First, Chemerinsky referred to the problem over the years of MSU-sponsored speakers who, in his words, have sometimes said things that were "anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish". He explained that hateful as they were, they were protected by free speech. He referred two or three times to the MSU annual week of events as "hate week" and advised the audience that it was coming again the week of May 10.

Chemerinsky, however, added that he would never have come to UCI had he thought there was an anti-Semitic atmosphere at the campus (I am paraphrasing.) He also referred to the investigation by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) a few years back and stated that the investigation made at the request of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) had determined that the complaints had no foundation (Again, I am paraphrasing.)

As for the disruption of the ambassador's speech, he rejected any defense that the MSU disruptors were exercising their own free speech since they were attempting to shut down the speech of the ambassador.

As far as punishment was concerned, he favored suspension for a term and community service, but nothing "so draconian as to ruin the students' lives."

As for suspending the MSU as a campus organization, he didn't think that was practical since it could simply re-form itself as an organization with a different name, and he did not want to see them become "martyrs".

During the Q&A, I introduced myself as a part-time teacher at UCI who had been following the events for a few years. I told the audience that 99% of the student body had no part in any anti-Semitism at UCI, but that the problem was the MSU-
sponsored speakers who had made such statements. I used the quotes of Washington-based imam Mohammed al-Asi, who has appeared at UCI several times, and is on video stating that "you can take the Jew out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the Jew." I added that it was my hope that after such statements, the leadership at UCI would come back and condemn such statements.

In response, Chemerinsky defended UCI Chancellor Michael Drake by saying that Drake had spoken out strongly against the disruption of the Israeli ambassador's speech and that Drake cares deeply about the overall issue.

My colleague, Ted Bleiweis of the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism, took issue with Chemerinsky's statement about the ZOA-DOE investigation, saying that the complaint was dismissed not on the facts, rather on the finding that some of the complaints had not been filed in a timely enough manner and the fact that the OCR had changed their definition of the Jews' status as a protected group. Ted also told the dean about incidents at UCI that went beyond speech but more to incidents of intimidation, including reported incidents where a student had a camera shoved in her face, a Christian preacher was shoved, two brothers were accosted by MSU members who objected to their filming and a girl who was filming an MSU speaker being followed back to her car and harassed while campus police did nothing. Some of the alleged victims of these incidents were not even Jewish.

Another colleague brought a copy of the documentation of the George Galloway event of May 21, which he had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (which allegedly contained false information) and asked why the investigation as to the fundraising nature of that event was still unresolved. Chemerinsky pointed out that due to student privacy laws, the public may never know the outcome unless the students themselves choose to release the information.

This UCI issue continues to be a burning one with the Jewish community. Dean Chemerinsky clarified the free speech issue for many members of the audience. I hope our questions/comments also contributed to their understanding of the situation.

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