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Shouting down discourse

Many protesters at the Olmert lecture showed lack of respect for University’s ideals.

The U of C prides itself on creating an environment that fosters the free and open exchange of ideas. It’s an ideal that flourishes across campus in classrooms and speaking halls. That’s why the behavior of some student protestors at the Harris School’s lecture featuring former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last Thursday was particularly troubling.

Olmert’s speech, which focused on his Palestinian peace plan, was supposed to last for 20 minutes; as a result of repeated interruptions, it took nearly 90. While many staged a peaceful protest outside, some student protestors in the auditorium shouted throughout the former prime minister’s talk, accusing Olmert of war crimes in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Some resorted to profanity and called for Olmert’s execution. And though not all the protestors were affiliated with the U of C, the incident undermined the University’s tradition of being a forum that shows tolerance toward all perspectives.

Olmert’s actions, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in general, engender fierce emotions on all sides of the issues. But surely any effort aimed at righting injustices and resolving conflicts must begin with an open and honest dialogue. A major role of academic institutions is to provide forums for such exchanges. Students who oppose Olmert’s opinions can and should speak up; what they should not do, however, is disrupt a planned speech with tactics designed to make dialogue impossible.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is famously quoted as saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” meaning, in this case, that if Olmert’s viewpoint is truly as repugnant as the protestors claimed, then the best thing they can do is allow his views to be brought to light. A good example of this principle in action was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University in 2007. His speech there expressed many of his controversial views, most famously that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Still, the fact that he spoke was a good thing: The nation learned just how bad the state of human rights is in Iran.

Giving a speaker a fair chance to speak does not constitute an endorsement of his views or actions. It shows a willingness to listen, an openness to ideas, and a rewspect for the University of Chicago’s commitment to academic dialogue. It was this sort of respect that was missing Thursday.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.

  • Nihaya

    When someone commits the atrocities that he did, he should not have any respect whatsoever. As for your fair and balanced approach, lets see how you would act if Hitler were to speak at your university. And don’t tell me its not the same… Both killed innocent people, both racist and wanting themselves as the superior human and both war criminals. Just because Olmert and the rest of the corrupt leaders in that government use a mask of self defense and Hitler was honest about his hate doesnt make them different from one another. One is taking their time while attempting to exterminate an entire race, and using your money to do it… and the other did it in a condensed period of time and didnt hide his agenda. And if being fair on all sides was important, why not invite a member of Hamas to debate him? The protestors, each and every one of them had a right to stop him from speaking, he did not deserve any respect or any time to be heard, because the things that came out of his mouth were filled with lies and poison.

  • Angela

    The implication that we need to have guidelines for protests is a dangerous one. Perhaps it’s all good in theory, but what about practice? Should there have been a quieter protest against the “God Hates Fags” group that came to campus last academic year? Why was it socially acceptable (by the President and this paper’s standards) to drown out that perspective out but not Olmert’s?

    Is a protest really a protest if it is within the boundaries of not disturbing anyone/thing? Social and Civil rights activists over the course of the 20th century (where we saw tremendous legislative changes in favor of improving the quality of life for marginalized groups)were similarly accused of taking their opposition too far. For example, Black people sitting at lunch counters in the South was once viewed as OUT OF CONTROL behavior. In terms of our interests as a collective community, are there some ideas that we should not tolerate (or even listen too)? I think so. Who should establish these standards? The community, of course! Those who protested, acted according to how they saw fit and their ideas on how we should function as a collective community are just as legitimate as President Zimmer’s (and this paper’s for that matter).

    Perhaps we should now be moving toward making sure multiple perspectives are included in the discussion on what type of environment we’d like to have.