Muslim students' trial nearly in hands of jury

September 20, 2011 - 3:35 AM

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Prosecutors argue that 10 Muslim students acted as censors when they shouted down a speech by an Israeli diplomat at the University of California, Irvine, while the defense says the students acted within the law.

The case, with defense closing arguments under way, has stoked a spirited debate about free speech not just in the courtroom but in the affluent suburban community south of Los Angeles.

Many of the facts are not in dispute: The students carefully planned their February 2010 protest during Ambassador Michael Oren's speech about U.S.-Israel relations and were escorted out by security officials.

Jurors will be asked to decide whether students broke the law or were exercising a right to demonstrate freely.

The students face misdemeanor charges of conspiring to disrupt a meeting and disrupting a meeting. If convicted, they could face sentences ranging from probation with community service and fines to a year in jail.

The case also raised questions about prosecutorial discretion, with some members of the public calling the trial a waste of taxpayers' money. Other community members have said the defendants were being singled out because they are Muslim.

In his closing argument Monday, prosecutor Dan Wagner told jurors the students acted as censors to block the free flow of ideas and infringed on the rights of 700 people who had gone to the campus that evening to hear Oren. He said emails among members of the Muslim Student Union showed students were aware they could be arrested before the protest.

"The right to free speech is not absolute," Wagner said before a packed courtroom of more than 180 people in Orange County, with more observers waiting outside. "If hecklers' vetoes were allowed, then nobody, nobody, none of us would have the right to free speech."

Defense attorney Reem Salahi — who represents two of the defendants — said the students followed a series of protests at UC Irvine and elsewhere during which demonstrators shouted during lectures but weren't arrested or sanctioned.

In this case, UC Irvine officials expressed their displeasure with students' actions during the demonstration but didn't give hard rules on what was or wasn't permitted, she said.

"This is merely an admonition to be polite," she said. "But in America, we don't prosecute people for being impolite."

Defense closing arguments were scheduled to continue Tuesday.

In 2010, the students were initially 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.

Nearly a year later, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed criminal charges against 11 students. The move prompted an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of Jewish, Muslim and campus groups.

The filing also sparked a media frenzy, and Wilson eventually issued a gag order to prevent prosecutors and defense attorneys from arguing the case outside the courtroom. The charges against one defendant were later dropped.

Many of the students have since graduated from UC Irvine and the nearby University of California, Riverside.