UC president Yudof: Speech is protected

Editor's note: This corrects the spelling of Hussam Ayloush's name.

NEWPORT BEACH — University of California President Mark Yudof spoke before an estimated 350 people at Temple Bat Yahm on Thursday night, telling the predominantly Jewish crowd that he doesn't condone the anti-Semitic statements occasionally made on UC campuses, not just at UC Irvine.

But the reality, Yudof said, is that there is nothing he can do about it because they are protected under the 1st Amendment, which allows for free speech and the right to assemble.

He said he receives hundreds of e-mails daily from angry people in the wake of such protests or activities, and that they all ask him the same thing: Why doesn't he come out and condemn the anti-Semitic remarks made among the more politically involved Muslim student groups on campus?

"Well, I have condemned the speeches," he said. "I do condemn all the anti-Israel speeches, I condemn all the anti-Semitic utterances. I've said that before, and I'm saying it now, and I'll say it in writing again."

But by law, Yudof said, he cannot censor the speeches, "no matter how horrific they are."

Nor, he added, can he "shut down" the activities that occur on campus. The long and short of it, said Yudof, who is an expert in the U.S. Constitution, is that everything is within the legal rights of students when they speak out against Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

Still, Yudof compared some of the anti-Semitic activities to the equivalent of the "Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan" coming to campus and giving speeches and holding rallies.

"It's plain vanilla bigotry," he said.

His remarks were also couched and tempered as a result of tension that's built up over the past few years between the Muslim Student Union and Jewish students at UCI.

In February, 11 students from the UCI MSU were arrested after they repeatedly interrupted a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who had planned to talk about the state of U.S.-Israeli relations.

The students said they were merely exercising their free speech rights, but Yudof said that's no defense.

"There is no right to drown out a speaker," he said.

But as far as the MSU and Anaheim office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, are concerned, the students had every right to voice their opinions.

"The students voiced political views to shame the representative of a foreign government accused of war crimes by the United Nations and human rights organizations," said CAIR Executive Director Hussam Ayloush. "Delivering this message in a loud and shocking yet peaceful manner was meant to express the gravity of charges leveled against Israeli policies. It falls under the purview of protected speech."

He went on to say that "legitimate criticism of Israeli policies is not anti-Semitism."

CAIR has also been critical of the punishment levied against the Muslim Student Union at UCI, calling it "selective" and saying that their disruption of Oren's speech should have been "constitutionally protected."

The MSU's subsequent suspension, CAIR said, is nothing but "an attempt to repress legitimate student protests" and that, in the end, it will undermine the importance of free speech at the university level.

CAIR markets itself as one of the largest Islamic civil liberties group in the United States. Its mission is to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims, according to Munira Syeda, CAIR communications manager.

She said there are roughly 170,000 Muslims who live in Orange County and an estimated 1 million in California.

"It's a big constituency," she said. "He [Yudof] should keep that in mind because he represents the UC system."

Yudof's speech was sponsored by the Rose Project, a Jewish Federation and Family Services. The group was created nearly two years ago and helps create bridges between UCI students and a better understanding of Israel and what it means to be Jewish. The proceeds of the event will go back into the Rose Project.

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