President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum called outbursts during former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech last week “disturbing,” in an e-mail message that several students found insulting and dismissive.
The e-mail, which reiterated the University’s commitment to free speech and debate on campus, was sent to all students, faculty, and staff Tuesday in response to protestors who yelled at Olmert during his lecture. The Harris School-sponsored talk, which was scheduled to run 20 minutes, took over an hour and a half due to the disruptions.
“The repeated disruption by audience members of [Olmert] was disturbing. Any stifling of debate runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom,” Zimmer and Rosenbaum wrote. “There is [an] obligation to hear from those who wish to express dissent, but not in a manner that prevents the speech of those with whom they disagree.”
Several students said they were offended and belittled by the e-mail, and voiced their complaints at a forum with Vice President of Campus and Student Life Kim Goff-Crews yesterday. Those students said the e-mail singled out protesters in an unnecessarily public message.
“I speak on the behalf of almost all Muslim students on campus,” fourth-year and Muslim Student Association member Enal Hindi said. “President Zimmer should have told us he was disturbed, but not advertise it to all faculty and staff.”
Hindi, who attended Olmert’s lecture but did not interrupt his speech, said professors have contacted her to express their sympathy in light of the e-mail. “In all my four years here, President Zimmer has never sent an e-mail attacking students. I felt attacked, denounced,” Hindi said. “I have never felt so unwelcome here.”
Olmert, whose government was accused of crimes against humanity during the recent Gaza conflict in a U.N. report, is currently on trial for corruption and fraud. Over 100 students rallied peacefully outside the Reynolds Club when he spoke, while almost two dozen shouted down Olmert inside, decrying his alleged war crimes. Four of the 18 people removed for disrupting Olmert were U of C students.
Goff-Crews defended the University’s stance to academic freedom, though she did concede the message could have been more tactful. “It was not the intent to target particular students,” she said. “But given the way it was written, I can understand how some might feel offended. We didn’t read it that way.”
Rosenbaum said the e-mail was necessary to reaffirm the University’s position on free speech. “There is no lack of controversial events on campus, and controversy is fine,” Rosenbaum said in an interview. “What made this event different and so concerning was the violation of our commitment as a community to the highest ideals of inquiry and informed argument.” He declined to comment on how the administration felt the e-mail impacted students.
Ali Abunimah (M.A. ’95), co-founder of Palestinian conflict-focused online newspaper Electronic Intifada, said the e-mail hid behind the issue of free speech instead of responding to students’ concerns over the lecture.
“The lecture was not a commitment to free speech,” said Abunimah, who was the first protestor escorted out of Mandel. “It was a deliberatively contrived and controlled setting that would not have allowed a challenge commensurate to Olmert’s actions,” referring to the Harris School’s decision to screen questions.
Harris School Dean Colm O’Muircheartaight was unavailable for comment.
Abunimah said the e-mail failed to address the discomfort the lecture caused many students and the responses it elicited.
“It’s incredibly insensitive to who have been directly affected by Israel’s attacks in Lebanon and Palestine,” he said. “The University wants us to sit silently for Ehud Olmert in the name of promoting debate. Would they provide an opportunity to do the same for the head of Hezbollah or Hamas?”
The University has allowed extremist speakers on campus in the past. The administration defended students’ rights to bring George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, on campus in 1963.
Rockwell’s lecture drew over 300 audience members, a bomb scare, and an assassination attempt. Two protestors, who both spent time in Nazi prison camps, were arrested for disorderly conduct when they interrupted Rockwell’s speech.
“[Rockwell] has nothing to offer us but hate and violence,” said then-Dean of Students Warner Wick, who called the visit “symbolic” of the University’s dedication to academic freedom. “We are not going to forbid any meeting.”
Graham School professor and First Amendment expert George Anastaplo (A.B. ’48, J.D. ’51, Ph.D. ’64), who has written papers about Rockwell’s visit, said disruptive students could have benefited from hearing Olmert’s entire lecture.
“There are a number of subjects discussed on campus that can be hurtful,” Anastaplo said. “But it’s imperative that the issues be discussed. If he doesn’t have a case, expose it. But once your passions have taken over, you’re conceding him the floor.”