Speaker Disruption Policy at UC Davis: A Position Paper

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The Problem

This paper suggests how we can better protect the freedom of speech of outside speakers invited to UC, Davis, as well as that of the audiences who come to listen to them.  It targets those protestors who disrupt such presentations. Our message is primarily for campus administrators who have the responsibility for overseeing academic affairs—the Chancellor, Provost and other top officials. In our view, UC Davis administrators in the past have excessively protected the “rights” of disrupters while insufficiently paying attention to the rights of speakers and audiences.

Our argument applies to all outside speakers sponsored by recognized campus organizations. But it specifically originates in actions taken against speakers from Israel who are singularly attacked. We are not aware of any disruptions of the presentations of any other speakers—American or foreign—at UCD in recent years. The catalyst for this paper was the disruption of a talk by an Israeli diplomat in Young Hall on March 7, 2016.  There have been other comparable events at UCD in recent years, including a disruption by a university employee of the program, “Defending the Israeli Image”, on February 27, 2012.

Such disruptive actions are likely to be repeated in the future. The protestors at the March, 2016, incident promised as much in a written statement issued at that time. Thus our concern is about guaranteeing the rights of future speakers and audiences.

As described below, UC policies  currently exist—both systemwide and specific to the Davis campus—that affirm the rights of invited speakers to fully present their programs.  The issue is how these policies are or are not applied by campus leaders.  Consequently, the concluding section of this paper focuses on the serious and consistent implementation of speaker policies with several specific suggestions for administrative action.

The speaker disruption issue is not exclusive to UC Davis.  It has been experienced in recent years at many other universities, including other University of California campuses and other prestigious institutions.  Several other universities have effectively dealt with the problem as cited below.

Campus disruptions directed against Israel are not confined to attacking outside speakers.  There also have been efforts to harass pro-Israel student events and hateful expressions in informal gatherings on the quad directed at Jews and Israel.

The Deek Incident

On March 7, 2016, an Israeli diplomat, George Deek, came to UC Davis as a speaker invited by Aggies for Israel, a recognized student group.  He started to give his talk in 190 Young Hall, largely about the story of his Arab-Christian family in the city of Jaffa, when he was abruptly and rudely interrupted by loud shouts and movement from a group of about 30 students and other people. Marching down to the front of the room, they blocked the speaker from the audience, unfurled a long banner (“1948 = 1492”), and shouted out anti-Israel slogans including:

‘intifada, intifada’
‘bricks and walls, Palestine will never fall’
‘Israel is anti-black’
‘Israel is an apartheid state’

As the disrupters finished their protest and began to leave the room, several shouted  “Allahu akhbar” (‘my God is greater”), a religious phrase frequently used by terrorists who commit violent acts.


A video of the event is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwJzbqYAPYA

The perpetrators promised to continue their disruptions of Israeli speakers at future events, as they declared in a written statement:

“…we will not tolerate or allow for such people (Israelis) to have a platform to speak on our campus, nor will we engage in pseudo ‘dialogue’ with them.”      –https://www.liberationnews.org/uc-davis-students-disrupt-visit-of-Israeli-diplomat/.

Such an inflammatory message indicates an inability to engage in honest discussion with persons holding different views. And it suggests the emergence of a troubling practice at UCD—permitting a dissenting group to determine who can speak to a campus audience.


Whose Freedom of Speech

Disruptive incidents like the Deek event are an attack on freedom of speech.  Typically, such incidents are justified by their proponents as a legitimate exercise of their right to express contentious views.  Campus administrators also adopt this position in explaining why they are loath to limit or punish speaker disruptions.

Ignored in the tolerance shown protestors are the rights of the speakers and the audiences who come to listen and engage with them in respectful discourse.  They too are covered by the freedom of speech commitment of the university.

The rights of speakers and audiences are at least equal to those of protestors. They are superior, it seems to us, in cases of deliberate and planned disruption. After all, protestors have other normal and easily available avenues to express their views, including peaceful demonstration outside the lecture hall, letters to the media, and a civil exchange of opinions with the speaker. They chose not to participate in such regular practices of academic discourse, avoiding the give and take of reasoned argument in a manner that disallows opposing viewpoints.   Disruptors deny others the opportunity to listen, learn, and question.

A major feature of speaker disruptions is that they seek either to prevent speakers from completing their presentations or to limit the effectiveness of the presentation by interrupting and distracting from the speaker’s argument.  Rather than honestly challenging the ideas and views that constitute the content of presentations—a legitimate purpose of freedom of speech—disruptions have at their core the purpose of preventing the event from occurring at all by discouraging campus groups from inviting Israeli speakers and spreading the impression that UCD is an inhospitable venue for such speakers. Thus speech is stifled before it even begins.

Disruptions at Other Campuses

Disruptions of Israel-related programs and speakers have occurred at many universities.  Below is a small sample of such recent incidents.  Newspaper accounts and the reports of organizations which track such events are the source of this information,

It should be noted that, in all the four incidents reported below, university authorities responded to disruptions with corrective actions—including clearing the lecture hall of the protestors and their signs—unlike the failure to act by UCD administrators at the Deek and other disruptions.

UC Irvine—February 8, 2010.  In this widely-reported incident, a group of protestors prevented Israel Ambassador Michael Oren from completing his speech.  The student group that organized the disruption, the Muslim Student Union, was suspended by the University and individual students were disciplined.  In addition, 11 persons involved in the incident were prosecuted by the Orange County District Attorney for disrupting a lawful meeting under the California Penal Code, ten of whom were subsequently convicted.

University of Minnesota—November 4, 2015.  Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University law professor, was prevented from starting his speech on “Ethics and the Law of War” by a group of shouting protestors.  The talk was delayed more than a half hour until police cleared protestors from the hall.  Three non-students were arrested for trespassing.  The dean of the Minnesota law school condemned the protesters for trying to deny others the chance to hear “an invited guest”.  While protesting is also protected speech, he said, “it’s not free speech when you silence others by shouting in the middle of a lecture.”  University officials said that they would investigate, by reviewing photos and videos of the event, to determine if students engaged in the protest violated the student code of conduct. The President and Provost issued a joint statement: “A commitment to freedom of speech and thought is absolutely fundamental to the University of Minnesota. Our University is and must be a place where people can explore ideas, engage in vigorous debate, and learn from one another’s perspectives.”

California State University, San Francisco—April 16, 2016.  Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was prevented from speaking by dozens of protestors yelling “Intifada, Intifada”.  Waving a Palestinian flag, the activists denounced Israel as a “terrorist” and “apartheid” state, and demanded an end to the “Israeli occupation,” and that Barkat leave the campus.  Following complaints from the sponsoring student organization and support groups to the campus President and Mayor of San Francisco, the University conducted a full investigation of the incident and promised student disciplinary actions if justified.  President Les Wong publicly stated:  “I am empowering my administration to take more swift and decisive action when faced with similar circumstances.  We will not allow another speaker to be drowned out and shouted down.”  He also apologized to Mayor Barkat and invited him back to campus.  A full investigative report found that the students indeed disrupted illegally, that campus security did not respond appropriately, and that new procedures would be instituted to ensure that such a disruption did not occur again.

Georgetown University—September 8, 2016.   A “Retrospective” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a four-member panel including two Israelis was disrupted by students shouting loudly and holding an anti-Israel banner.  Campus police removed the banner and its holders from the hall.  The program moderator informed the protestors that they were in violation of University policy protecting speakers’ and audiences’ rights.

Existing Statutes, Regulations and Policies

In dealing with the speaker disruption issue, campus administrators do not lack for appropriate tools.  They range from the general to the specific, from general norms and principles to formal, written policies at both the UC systemwide and Davis campus levels.  Most pertinent are the following:

The speaker and the protester, the politician and the dissident, the preacher and the atheist have the same rights of expression. If space and time have been allotted or reserved, the speaker has a right to communicate her message to the audience, and those who wish to receive the message have a right to see and hear her. Any dissenters must do so in a way that does not substantially impair or obstruct communication between speaker and audience. Always, these restrictions must be enforced uniformly, and not based on the nature or content of the message.

–Guidelines for applying UCD Principles of Community (December, 2003)


  1. Actions that physically or otherwise interfere with the ability of an individual or group to assemble, speak, and share or hear the opinions of others (within time place and manner restrictions adopted by the University) impair the mission and intellectual life of the University and will not be tolerated.
  2. The Regents call on University leaders to apply these Principles Against Intolerance and all other University policies directed to discrimination and intolerance to the full extent permissible under law. University leaders should assure that they have processes in place to respond promptly, and at the highest levels of the University, when appropriate, when intolerant and/or discriminatory acts occur. . . .

–UC  Regents’ Policy: Principles Against Intolerance  (3/23/2016)


Chancellors may impose discipline for the commission or attempted commission (including aiding or abetting in the commission or attempted commission) of the following types of violations by students, as well as such other violations as may be specified in campus regulations:

….102.09. Harassment, defined as conduct that is so severe and/or pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so substantially impairs a person’s access to University programs or activities that the person is effectively denied equal access to the University’s resources and opportunities.

….102.13. Obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures, or other University activities.

–UC  Policies Applying to Campus Activities, Organizations and Students (PACAOS). 100.00 POLICY ON STUDENT CONDUCT AND DISCIPLINE

  1. Preamble. Independent thought and diversity of opinions are the essence of the University, and freedom of expression is necessary for the University to fulfill its mission of producing and disseminating knowledge. Without the ability of its members to freely hear, express, and debate different ideas and points of view, the University would lack the culture of free inquiry that lies at the foundation of the academic enterprise. In furtherance of this mission, the University’s Principles of Community aspire to create an environment committed to the highest standards of civility, respect, and decency.

III. Policy.

  1. The University is committed to ensuring that all persons may exercise their constitutionally protected rights of free expression, speech, assembly, and worship, even in instances in which the positions expressed may be viewed by some as controversial or unpopular.
  2. The University shall attempt to ensure that, at any meeting, event, or demonstration, constitutionally protected free expression is not infringed, and shall take necessary steps to attempt to ensure the continuing openness and effectiveness of channels of communication among members of the University community.
  3. Time, Place, and Manner Regulations
  4. Consistent with University of California Policies Applying to Campus Activities, Organizations and Students 30.00, Policy on Speech and Advocacy, the campus has adopted policies that provide for non-interference with University functions, referred to as time, place, and manner regulations.

–UC Davis Policy and Procedures Manual, Chapter 400 Campus Climate, Section 01 Freedom of Expression

In addition, California state law addresses meeting disruptions:

  1. Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character, other than an assembly or meeting referred to in Section 302 of the Penal Code or Section 18340 of the Elections Code, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

–California Penal Code

Section 403 applies to campus events to the same extent as off-campus events.  University Police should enforce this statute just as other peace officers should.  Even if the police choose not to enforce it at the time of the disruption, it is still a misdemeanor if the statute is violated, and the University has the power to press charges if it so chooses.

Furthermore, if disruptions are planned in advance an additional provision of the Penal Code is violated– “conspiracy to commit a crime”.  That was the case at UC Irvine with the disruption of the Michael Oren event in 2010 cited above.

Implementation: What UCD Administrators Can Do

The key to the effectiveness of campuses in dealing with speaker disruptions is whether and how administrators act to implement such policies. UCD academic leaders have considerable discretion in such situations.   We have no wish to lecture Mrak Hall on how to interpret stated academic policies, but it seems to us in the tug of war over the respective rights of protestors, speakers and audiences in the case of Israeli presenters, the disruptors have been unduly favored. In the interest of correcting this balance and protecting the honest exchange of ideas and opinions necessary for the academic environment, we offer the following menu of appropriate administrative actions. In presenting this list, we draw from a variety of sources including actions taken on other campuses and the suggestions of outside organizations concerned with speakers’ rights.

  1. Speaker disruptions should be immediately and thoroughly investigated by competent campus officials to (a) determine what policies if any have been violated and (b) identify the perpetrators and their status—student organizations, individual students, faculty/staff, other. Videotaping the event should be a routine procedure when a disruption is expected or likely to occur. If the evidence warrants, administrators should not be hesitant to apply appropriate disciplinary measures according to student and faculty codes. In extreme cases, the information may be forwarded to the county District Attorney for possible prosecution under California law.
  1. Even before the investigation of an incident is complete, top campus administrators have a responsibility to issue an unequivocal public statement condemning the disruption and declaring it contrary to the values and practices of the University.
  1. Campus police should be part of the implementation process. As seen on other campuses, they should not hesitate to remove disrupters and their signs from the lecture venue when a disruption blocks a scheduled presentation from proceeding.  Their presence is also necessary for the purposes of conducting the investigation.
  1. Speaker protection policies should apply to any material effort to block a presentation, regardless of how long or short the duration of disruption. The very first yells or unfurling of a banner are disruptive and occur outside of the normal discourse associated with serious debate of public issues. It is one thing to vigorously disagree with a speaker and offer opposing arguments; it is quite another to shout, yell, jump up and down, or physically attempt to take over the lecture hall. To set a time trigger—five, ten minutes or whatever– before disciplinary action can occur is to give the disrupters a license to engage in such destructive behavior.  Would the campus permit a deliberate attempt to disrupt a classroom lecture, a convocation, or a graduation ceremony because it was “only” for three minutes?  What if it was for three minutes at every lecture –just as it threatens to be for every pro-Israel event?
  1. In the case of disruptions of programs featuring Israeli speakers or Israel-related topics, campus administrators can draw on the resources of several outside and knowledgeable organizations. Expert assistance is available from Amcha Initiative, Anti Defamation League, Brandeis Center, Academic Exchange Network, StandWithUs, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and several other organizations.
  1. A standard statement explaining speaker and audience rights should be prepared for program moderators to use in their speaker introductions. The statement can briefly summarize UC and UCD policy on this matter.
  1. California Penal Code sec. 403 and existing UC policies should be taken seriously, implemented with supplemental regulations when required by UC policies, and applied firmly. Failure to do so will only encourage more disruptions and perhaps even counter-disruptions that could lead to chaotic and dangerous situations.
  1. Even though UCD’s Principles of Community are only aspirational, university leaders should publicly criticize deliberate disruptions and refer to the Principles when doing so, regardless of what other actions are taken.



Speaker Disruption Policy at UC Davis: A Position Paper

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