Karen Lugo

All Americans owe the Orange County (CA) District Attorney a huge debt of gratitude. Despite demands to withdraw the prosecution of the “UCI-11” Muslim students who shouted down Ambassador Michael Oren, the DA and his team tried the case and won a hugely important constitutional point: It is a crime to exploit expressive rights to squelch another’s speech rights.

The UCI Muslim Student Union protestors were accused of a conspiracy to serially interrupt the ambassador’s lecture based upon e-mails and meetings to organize the “staging [of] a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador’s speech.” The guilty verdict announced days ago included punishments of three years of informal probation, 56 hours of community service, and $270 in fines.

Although the Muslim students demanded absolute protection of their riotous behavior, they were found guilty of crossing the line between lawful exercise of free speech and speech used to silence an opposing point of view. They left the zone of protection that liberally covers speech and debate on matters of public concern when they conspired to deny the speaker’s equal right; at the same time denying the rights of audience members who lawfully assembled to hear the speaker.

Fortunately, judges and juries have covered this ground before and recognize the coercive effect of the “heckler’s veto.” By pattern, a heckler is known as one who "harasses and tries to disconcert with questions, challenges, or gibes." By performance, the heckler is recognized as one who is unable to defend his argument in the court of public opinion by legitimate use of facts, logic, and reason. University of California Irvine’s law dean warned, “People can always silence a speaker by heckler’s veto, and Babel results.”

Notwithstanding the clear legal and obvious cultural implications, the Orange County Register, considered a libertarian-leaning enterprise, offered editorial comment condemning the prosecution and the verdict. Editors called the prosecution “selective” and even drew the absurd comparison between this political protest and the disruption of a “chemistry or biophysics lecture.”

Karen Lugo

Karen Lugo is the Founder of the Libertas-West Project and a co-director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence.