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Verdict reached in 'Irvine 11' case [UPDATE]

by Kelsey Duckett, Contributing Writer

September 23, 2011 | 1:45 pm

A protester is escorted from the lecture hall after disrupting Ambassador Michael Oren’s lecture in February. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

A protester is escorted from the lecture hall after disrupting Ambassador Michael Oren’s lecture in February. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

UPDATE [11:45 a.m.] All 10 students found guilty on two misdemeanor counts of conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010. Sentencing will follow later today.

Wednesday, Sept. 21.
After two days of closing arguments, the fate of 10 Muslim students has been handed over to an Orange County Superior Court jury, who began deliberations today.

The students — eight currently at UC Irvine and three UC Riverside graduates — are charged with two misdemeanor counts of conspiring to and then disrupting a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010, and could face a sentence ranging from a year in jail to probation with community service and fines.

The case, which began Sept. 7, boiled down to closing arguments on Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 19-20, from six defense attorneys and the prosecution.

Popularly known as “Irvine 11,” the case has stirred a heated and sensitive debate on free speech rights, which each attorney spent considerable time discussing.

On one side, the Orange County district attorney’s office is contending that the 10 students on trial — charges against an 11th co-defendant were tentatively dropped — prevented Oren from speaking freely. They are contending that freedom does have limits, specifically when “it imposes on someone else’s freedoms.”

“The right to free speech is not absolute,” Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said before a packed courtroom of nearly 200, with more waiting in the hall on Monday. “If hecklers’ vetoes were allowed, then nobody, nobody, none of us would have the right to free speech.”

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

“This is merely an admonition to be polite,” Reem Salahi, a defense attorney representing two of the students, said. “But in America, we don’t prosecute people for being impolite.”

Dan Stormer, another defense attorney, stayed along these same lines saying, “Being rude may be unpleasant, but it’s not unlawful.”

Defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman went so far as to liken the 10 students to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.

“It’s rude, absolutely,” Goodman said, referring to the 10 disruptions made by the students. “These are people who stood up because their conscience demanded it. The government wants you to call them criminals. They’re using all their might to call these extraordinary young men — these heroes — criminals.”

Although Oren did complete his speech, a planned question-and-answer session was cut from the program. The district attorney attributes this to the time lost because of “disruptions.”

The facts in the case are not in dispute — both sides agreed that the students planned and executed last February’s protest and were then escorted out and arrested by security officials.

Deputy D.A. Wagner said the subject chosen by the students in their protest was irrelevant. He said it not only infringed on the rights of Oren himself, but also on the rights of the 700 people in attendance that night.

The students could have stood up and yelled, “Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse!” Wagner said, and the result would have been the same. “Once the rules are getting broken like that, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Yes, that’s anarchy. I suppose that’s where they want to go.”

The students’ plan, carefully crafted, drafted and laid out, was intended to halt Oren from speaking, Wagner said.

“The plan was to shut Oren down,” he said. “The plan was to shut the event down. And that is exactly what the students and their disruptions did. They shut it down.”

But the defense argued that the students’ actions were of “normal custom for such an event” when they stood, one by one, and read a statement from a notecard. The defense stated that the students had no intention of “shutting down” the speech.

Near the end of Salahi’s argument, she wanted to share a personal story unrelated to the trial, but Wagner objected and Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson said she couldn’t proceed.

She paused for a moment, then told the jury, “I can’t tell you the story — I got shut down,” to thunderous applause and cheering from the courtroom.

This outburst caused Wilson to warn those in attendance that he “would clear the courtroom if there was another outburst from the public.”

So were the students exercising their right to free speech or were the students indeed breaking the law?

Wagner stated strongly that the students did indeed break the law, adding that the rules for the event were laid out clearly by both the moderator and chancellor.

“The rules were clear, and made crystal clear as the night went on,” he said. “It was always [their] plan to break the rules. They never intended on following the rules.”

Wagner used 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 and discussing the possibility of arrest and potential punishment as evidence that the students “knew the risk of their action and proceeded anyway.”

But defense attorney Dan Stormer said the students had the right to protest and plan a protest. Although “being rude may be unpleasant, it is not unlawful,” he said.

“You may not like what I have to say, but you gotta love the fact that I have the right to say it,” Stormer said.

The case, Wagner said, is about the students acting as censors to prevent a free flow of ideas, and he pointed out to the jury that the “right to free speech is not absolute.”

“Who is the censor in this case?” Wagner asked the jurors. “Right there — 10 of them.”

Related

Mosques organize prayer for 'Irvine 11'
'Irvine 11' plead not guilty in Oren incident
'Irvine 11' wants D.A. removed from case
Drop charges against 'Irvine 11,' Jewish faculty urges

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