Kathryn Babayan: Responds to critics

Historians in the News

[Kathryn Babayan is Associate Professor of Iranian History & Culture, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan.]

The following constitutes my response to the recent accounts given by the UM student organization The American Movement for Israel (AMI), Guest Speaker Professor Raymond Tanter, and Senior Information Officer Diane Brown, of the Office of the Associate Vice President for Facilities and Operations, as they were reported in the Ann Arbor News (Dec. 2nd, 2006), the Michigan Daily (Dec. 4th, 2006) and the Washington Examiner (December 7th, 2006).

The rights of the speaker Professor Tanter to lecture on Thursday, November 30th, were not abused as has been claimed by him, AMI, and others. Certainly the AMI´s own video recording of the event has documented the facts: he gave his ten-minute threadbare speech on the"Islamic fascist ideology of Iran," and then took questions, and comments from audience members, though mockingly and condescendingly.

It was in fact the rights and personal security of dissenting audience members that were egregiously abused that evening. According to the university´s policies on the freedom of speech and artistic expression, event organizers, guest speakers, and campus police cannot determine at will or arbitrarily what constitutes"undue interference" at university public events attended by diverse and, at times, contrary political opinions. According to the University of Michigan´s standard guidelines (which I encourage all readers to learn at: www.spg.umich.edu),"protesters have rights, just as do speakers and artists. The standard of"undue interference" must not be invoked lightly, merely to avoid brief interruptions, or to remove distractions or embarrassment." But that was exactly what happened: the standard of"undue interference" was abused and wantonly invoked to lead to our removal from the event. AMI organizers"sicked" the campus police on the protesters in the audience and, by force of arrest, silenced our voices, which are institutionally protected within the university community"spectrum of opinion."

As if this weren´t enough violation of university policies, what ensued was excessive and abusive use of force by campus police officers against the protesters. Targeting the most vocal,"foreign-looking," and obviously Middle Eastern protester, AMI Chair Josh Berman gave the word and signal to the campus officers to remove her. At that, one male officer lunged at her, grabbed her out of her seat next to mine, and tried to shove her out of the room. But because of the force behind the pull, she tripped, and fell onto the narrow aisle at my feet. The Officer threw his body onto her and thrust his knee into her shoulder, shouting"Get up! Get up!" though it was clear that, due to his weight and sheer force, she had been rendered unable to move or rise. When I and other audience members objected vocally to the officers´ undue and excessive use of force, he and other campus police officers warned us that, if we did not desist from our objections, we too would be arrested. These threats and intimidations represent another flagrant example of campus authorities´ suppression of the legitimate exercise of freedom of speech.

Campus police´s violence against ordinary citizens was not isolated to this one incident. When a group of us pursued down the hallway the officers who had hauled away the female protester, we saw lying on the floor there, with a bloodied forehead, another protester. He had been removed from the event venue by officers, handcuffed, and kept on his back. Despite the protests by demonstrator and physician Dr. Willkinson for medically humane treatment of the unconscious man, the male officer ignored her and defiantly repeated,"They are not coming off."

The institutional parties who have acted badly in this affair are numerous. One is Diane Brown, whose statements in the two afore-mentioned newspapers support and protect the police´s and AMI´s decisions and behavior. In unquestioningly supporting the misactions and misdeeds of both the student organization and the campus police, and in concluding that"what happened" that evening justified their responses, and that, hence, these responses do not constitute abuse of power and negligence of obligations toward all participants, including protesters, Ms. Brown has failed her institutional responsibility and duties.

The one beacon of light in the midst of this dark intolerance was one young man who did the right thing: out of the crowd he appeared and held the hand of the female victim while she was being pinned down by Officer West and a female officer. This young man remained by the protester´s side throughout her detainment by the police. He recognized that it behooved everyone to protect the rights of all participants ' to free expression, particularly when that expression is considered onerous. This young man rose as the sole conscientious citizen in that crowd and I salute him.

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