Calif. Muslim students guilty of disrupting speech

September 23, 2011 - 5:40 PM
University Tension

One defendants covers his face before the jury found the 10 Muslim students guilty of disrupting the Israeli ambassador's university speech about U.S.-Israel relations, a case that stoked a debate about free speech, Friday, Sept. 23. 2011 in Santa Ana, Calif. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Ken Steinhardt) MAGS OUT; LOS ANGELES TIMES OUT

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A jury on Friday convicted 10 Muslim students of disrupting a talk by the Israeli ambassador on a university campus in a case that has stoked an intense debate about free speech.

The jury also convicted the students of conspiring to disrupt Ambassador Michael Oren's speech in February 2010 at the University of California, Irvine. They were charged with misdemeanor counts after standing up, one by one, and shouting prepared statements such as "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech."

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson sentenced the defendants to 56 hours of community service and three years of informal probation. The judge found that the incident did not merit jail time and he added that the probation period would be reduced to one year if the community service is completed by the end of January 2012. Minimal court fines and fees were also assessed against the 10.

About 150 people, including relatives and supporters of the students and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, attended the verdict. Some community members gasped and started crying when the verdict was read and about a dozen walked out.

The students showed little reaction but later huddled with their attorneys and shared hugs with family and friends.

Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California said he was shocked.

"This is yet another reaffirmation that Islamophobia is intensely and extensively alive and thriving in Orange County," he said. "I believe this will be used as precedent now to suppress speech and dissent throughout the country. This is the beginning of the death of democracy."

A coalition of Muslim and Christian community leaders denounced the verdict and vowed to stand by the students. They praised the students' courage for standing up to Oren and protesting the Israeli government's actions in Gaza in the tradition of American civil rights leaders.

"This attack against Muslim students and the Muslim community is an attack on democracy. It's an attack on all of us," Father Wilfredo Benitez, rector of St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove. "It's an attack on all of us. It's an attack on all those people who believe in the U.S. Constitution and freedom of speech."

UC Irvine said in a statement that it supports free speech.

"We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view," said Rex Bossert, a university spokesman.

The verdict was praised by the sponsor of Oren's speech, the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County.

Shalom C. Elcott, JFFS president and CEO, said in a statement that the verdict reaffirmed that it was a planned and systematic disruption used to "trample on the free speech of others and crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance."

Prosecutors said the students broke the law by interrupting Oren's speech on U.S.-Israel relations and cutting short the program, despite calls to behave from campus officials. Defense attorneys argued the students had a right to protest.

Some community members called the trial a waste of taxpayers' money and said prosecutors were singling out the defendants because they are Muslim.

Prosecutor Dan Wagner told jurors the students acted as censors to block the free flow of ideas and infringed upon the rights of 700 people who had gone to the Irvine campus to hear Oren.

Wagner showed video footage of university officials pleading with students to stop, but they kept interrupting the lecture. Wagner also showed emails sent among members of UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union planning the disruption and calculating who was willing to get arrested.

Defense attorneys countered there were no hard rules for the speech, and the students might have been discourteous but didn't break the law.

Lawyer Reem Salahi, who represents two of the defendants, said the demonstration was modeled after a series of protests at UC Irvine and elsewhere in which students shouted at lecturers but weren't arrested.

She said the students never intended to halt Oren's speech entirely but wanted to express their views on the Israeli government's actions in Gaza.

During the case, attorneys showed dueling pie charts breaking down how much time the students demonstrated, how long their supporters cheered and how much time Oren spoke. The evidence was intended to show whether the meeting suffered a significant disruption.

Attorneys for the students — who attended UC Irvine and nearby University of California, Riverside — argued before the trial that charges should never have been filed and that the issue was already handled on campus.

In 2010, the students were cited, released and disciplined at UC Irvine, which revoked the Muslim Student Union's charter for a quarter and placed it on two years of probation.

Earlier this year, Rackauckas filed criminal charges against 11 students, prompting an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of Jewish, Muslim and campus groups. Charges against one defendant later were dropped.