On November 13, 2015, the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) at UT-Austin disrupted an event hosted by Israel Studies Professor Ami Pedahzur at which a guest speaker (who also was Israeli) from Stanford University was to lead a discussion.

The PSC protesters, led by law student Mohammed Nabulsi and former Middle East Studies grad student Patrick Higgins, refused to leave when asked, shouted arguably threatening demands for an Intifada, and for the destruction of Israel.

Prof. Pedahzur’s concerns were heightened when he learned, after the disruption, that Nabulsi and Higgins appeared to have had online aliases using the names of known terrorists. Nabulsi has written of the need for the anti-Israel boycott movement to support Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other “resistance” groups.

The protesters then released an edited video of the encounter designed to make them look like the victims as part of a media campaign against Prof. Pedahzur, and hired a lawyer who filed a “civil rights” complaint with the University.

The anti-Israel students claims were not supported by the video (even though it was edited by them) or their press narratives

There has been growing pushback against the bullying tactics of the anti-Israel students, whose conduct arguably violated school policy. A Petition supporting Prof. Pedahzur already has over 2000 signatures.

The University had issued, to this date, some wishy-washy statements, but now has come out with a strong statement of support for Prof. Pedahzur.

In a statement issued this afternoon, Randy L. Diehl, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, both supported Prof. Pedahzur and lambasted the disruption:

Amidst the current controversy concerning the disruption of an academic lecture sponsored by the Institute for Israel Studies, I want to reiterate my deep admiration for the work of Professor Ami Pedahzur and the Institute for Israel Studies in conducting courses and public programming that represent the highest standard of academic discourse and dispassionate reasoning and research on a controversial subject of enormous importance. Students and faculty of every background, including Palestinians and Israelis alike, have enthusiastically received Prof. Pedahzur’s courses and his supervision of undergraduate and graduate research.

Although reviews are still ongoing, I wish to emphasize that there are places on campus for responsibly discussing disagreements. Disruption of a visiting scholar’s invited academic lecture violates principles of academic freedom and free speech that are crucial to our mission as a great university.

Randy L. Diehl
Dean

Ami Pedahzur

While Prof. Pedahzur is not out of the legal woods yet, as the “civil rights” complaint is pending in the University system, the protesters who are still students need to be thinking of their own academic and even legal exposure. As previously covered (and as Dean Diehl appears to have intimated), the disruption of the event may have violated the campus code of conduct.

Some of the legal bases which may require action by the University are set out in a letter the American Jewish Committee sent to the university (full at bottom of post):

The University also has a duty to protect speech from hecklers, as is apparent from court decisions discussing a “duty to maintain order by taking such steps as may be reasonably necessary and feasible to protect peaceable, orderly speakers” from disruptive audience members. Cottonreader v. Johnson, 252 F. Supp. 492 (M.D. Ala. 1966). The federal courts have approved of crowd control policies as important to protecting organized speakers’ speech. Grider v. Abramson, 994 F. Supp. 840, 848 (W.D. Ky. 1998), aff’d, 180 F.3d 739 (6th
Cir. 1999) (“Plaintiffs had no constitutional right to talk over or shout down the rally speakers. Allowing individuals to drown out the message of lawful speakers would diminish, rather than affirm, the right of free speech.”); see also Bible Believers v. Wayne Cty., Mich., 2015 WL 6500505, at *19 (6th Cir. Oct. 28, 2015) (“Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines-watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule .”). It is wellestablished that there is no “constitutional right to talk over or shout down” organized speakers. Grider, 994 F. Supp. at 848; see also Red Lion Broad. Co. v. F.C.C., 395 U.S. 367, 387 (1969) (“The right of free speech … does not embrace a right to snuff out the free speech of others.”)

Accordingly, under the law, the University clearly has an obligation to ensure its policies and actions do not permit portions of the student body to override other students’ and the faculty’s First Amendment rights. It is not clear to us that the University has sufficient safeguards in place to prevent disruptions, such as the ones reported from last week, from interfering with speech. Unless the University adopts a more hands-on policy to ensure speech is not disrupted by hecklers, it effectively allows hecklers to “vote on” which speech may occur on campus. That clearly violates the First Amendment rightsof students wishing to hear the protested content.

Based on this law, the University may have a legal obligation to enforce its campus code against these students who violated the free speech rights of others. The question remains what the University will to with regard to the protesters to make sure this type of bullying stops.

The attack on Prof. Pedahzur cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, it is part of a national campaign to stifle speech on campuses by Israelis and pro-Israel speakers. Kenneth Waltzer makes this point in The Times of Israel, Disrupting the study of Israel on campus:

There is a clear line between non-violent protest and planned disruption of university academic events….

University administrators need to investigate the event thoroughly and then to take clear actions against protesters who disrupt university teaching, interfere with the rights of faculty and students to participate in learning, and engage in berating or abusive behavior. No free speech rights exist to disrupt, berate, and close down the speech and learning of others.

In the meantime, university administrators should also speak out much more forcefully and clearly, stating that such behavior will not be tolerated at UT. Disrupters who violate university values and established codes of behavior will be disciplined or dismissed. Those who actively disrespect and interfere with the rights of others will be prosecuted. The rest of American higher education is watching.

Here are links to our prior posts:

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Sharphorn (UTexas-Austin) 111315 Lecture Hosted by Professor Ami Pedahzu…