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Free to speak? Protesters shout down Israeli academic at U of M, rekindle debate

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Protesters who disrupted a speech at the University of Minnesota this week also revived a campus debate about freedom of expression.

Moshe Halbertal, a law professor at both Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at New York University, was invited to deliver a lecture Tuesday at the U of M law school's Mondale Hall.

Demonstrators with groups including Students for Justice in Palestine and the Anti-War Committee disrupted Halbertal's speech, the Minnesota Daily reports. One member of the Anti-War Committee told the Daily the university should not have hired a speaker with Halbertal's views on war crimes and civilian casualties.

The Star Tribune reports that after 30 minutes of delays – and the arrests of three protesters – Halbertal proceeded with his speech.

The disruption prompted a U of M professor of civil rights law who was at the lecture to post a commentary on a Washington Post blog. Dale Carpenter writes, in part:

"That the freedom to present a lecture is threatened in this way at a public university is appalling, calling not only for punishment of violations but for a clear statement by university officials defending the free exchange of ideas."

A university spokesman tells the Star Tribune the three people arrested and cited for trespassing were not students.

They missed a speech that Carpenter describes in the Post as careful and nuanced, "...far more dovish and human-rights oriented than caricatures of Halbertal as a 'war crimes apologist' by protesters suggested."

To Carpenter, Tuesday's event was not isolated, but part of a larger issue involving freedom of speech on campus. He told the Star Tribune that last year's efforts by some U of M faculty and staff to revoke an invitation to Condoleezza Rice were another example of it, citing people who "...think it’s appropriate to prevent speakers from speaking about topics they’re sensitive about.”

For its part, the U of M chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine tells Mint Press the group has received abusive and threatening messages but plans to continue its activism.

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