Jewish Journal


September 27, 2011

‘Irvine 11’ verdict keeps debate going


Eight of the ten Muslim college students from Southern California convicted of unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the U.S. last year, listen to the judge during sentencing at a court in Santa Ana, California on Sept. 23. Photo by REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

Eight of the ten Muslim college students from Southern California convicted of unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the U.S. last year, listen to the judge during sentencing at a court in Santa Ana, California on Sept. 23. Photo by REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

When all is said and done, there has been no final resolution in the “Irvine 11” case, which for more than a year has divided Jews and Muslims as well as the Jewish community itself.

After an Orange County jury deliberated for two days and found 10 Muslim students guilty of two misdemeanors on Sept. 23, Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson handed down his sentence a few hours later — three years’ probation, which would be cut to a year if the students complete 56 hours of community service by Jan. 31, and $270 in fines.

Defense attorney Lisa Holder said she will file an appeal in the next 30 days.

“Ultimately, we will appeal to the Supreme Court,” she said.

The students were charged with and found guilty of conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8, 2010. Among the comments shouted that night by the defendants: “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” and “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!”

Popularly known as the “Irvine 11,” the case has stirred a heated and sensitive nationwide debate on free-speech rights. On one side, Orange County Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner argued that Oren was “shut down.” On the other, six defense attorneys argued that the students acted within the law and were exercising their right to free speech

Attorneys for the students said they plan to file and an appeal and vowed that “the case is far from over.” During a town hall meeting held Sept. 25 in Anaheim, students, their attorneys, families and supporters gathered to “plan their next move.”

The 10 students — charges against an 11th co-defendant were tentatively dropped — could have served up to one year in jail, but Wilson said jail time was not warranted because evidence showed that the students were “motivated by their beliefs and did not disrupt for the sake of disrupting.”

During the eight-day trial, Wagner argued the defendants used a “heckler’s veto,” which he said infringed on Oren’s free-speech rights.

“The right to free speech is not absolute,” Wagner said before a packed courtroom on Sept. 19. “If heckler’s vetoes were allowed, then nobody, nobody, none of us would have the right to free speech.”

He stated that the students knew the university’s rules on disrupting a speaker. He showed video clips of university officials pleading with demonstrators to behave, and showed numerous e-mails sent between students and the Muslim Student Union planning the disruption as well as discussing the possibility of arrest and potential punishment as evidence that the students “knew the risk of their action and proceeded anyway.”

The six defense attorneys argued that the students acted within the law by doing what other demonstrators have done on college campuses across the United States, and most certainly at UC Irvine.

The jury — composed of six men and six women — disagreed.

Defense attorney Dan Stormer said he was disappointed in the verdict, saying that it could take away the very right that the United States was founded on.

“You cannot convict people in this country based on the content of their speech,” he said.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, called the case “divisive” and the convictions “harsh.”

He said that using speech to silence another’s First Amendment right is not constitutionally protected, and he agrees that the students broke the law. But Chemerinsky believes the District Attorney’s office made a “terrible mistake” in prosecuting the case.

“I think it’s a shame that they now have misdemeanor convictions,” he told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the 10 students.

Shalom Elcott, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, which was also a sponsor of the Oren event, said the verdict is exactly what he was anticipating.

“The verdict reaffirms that the Muslim Student Union’s planned, systematic use of disruptions to trample on the free speech of others crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance,” he said. “While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support ‘hate speech.’ ”

Elcott said he will continue to advocate for “constructive dialogue in place of the hateful rhetoric that’s been used under the guise of free speech. It is counterproductive to any and all efforts to ensure the free exchange of ideas.”

In an op-ed for the Orange County Register, David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates and former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, wrote that the students made “a conscious decision to disrupt and harass a guest speaker on a university campus.”

“As the court record and numerous documents make clear, the Muslim Student Association membership wanted to disrupt, not engage with, the ambassador. Prior to the lecture, the Muslim Student Association members signaled both their intention to disrupt and their contempt for the notion of civil dialogue and the exchange of ideas — and disrupt they did,” they wrote.

Supporters of the students labeled the verdict “a travesty of justice” at a press conference outside the courthouse.

“It’s a tragic and disgraceful day in the history of Orange County,” said the Rev. Wilfredo Benítez, rector of Garden Grove’s St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church. “This attack against Muslim students and the Muslim community is an attack against democracy; it’s an attack on all of us.”

But prosecutors have said from the beginning and have reiterated throughout the trial that they were not targeting a specific group.

“It’s not Islamophobic; it’s not against or for any particular group,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said. “This is strictly about the rule of law and not allowing one group to shut down another. And, if it was the opposite and it was an Israeli group shutting down a Muslim group, we’d do exactly the same thing.”

Rackauckas said the jury sent “a strong message that First Amendment rights belong to everybody, and we will not tolerate a small group wanting to shut down speeches on a campus or anyplace.”

Reem Salahi, a defense attorney representing two of the students, disagreed.

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

Ameena Qazi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said, “When history books are written and this case comes to its final conclusion ... the ‘Irvine 11’ will stand alongside other civil rights heroes.”

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