At a town hall meeting on March 5, more than 200 people pledged to express opposition to misdemeanor criminal charges filed against 11 students who disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), in February 2010. Supporters calling themselves the Irvine 11 Task Force issued their call to action one week before the students’ scheduled arraignment on March 11.
Last month, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced charges of one count each of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting against the UCI and University of California, Riverside, students.
Speakers at the town hall meeting, at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim, suggested the matter would not have moved forward had the defendants not been Muslim.
“It’s an issue of free speech and of having the right to say your opinion, and whether you agree with the tactics is irrelevant,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “This is an attempt to target a victimized community. [Rackauckas] thinks he can score political points at our expense. The community has to lead efforts to expose these anti-Muslim bigots.”
Rackauckas’ office has said repeatedly that the students’ religion has no bearing on the case.
UCI administrators disciplined the students and suspended the campus Muslim Student Union (MSU) for one academic quarter for violating campus codes of conduct after determining that members had planned the disruption. Some community leaders, including 100 UCI professors, have argued the university’s action is sufficient punishment. Others say the students should be punished for violating Oren’s First Amendment rights.
“The grass roots of the Jewish community is in strong support of freedom of speech,” Rabbi David Eliezrie of the North County Chabad Center, who although not at the event, said in an interview afterward. “The indictment sends a message that if you deny someone’s right to free speech and expression, you are accountable to the law.”
Eliezrie called the matter a test case of the limits of free speech on U.S. college campuses, warning that failure to take legal action could result in pro-Israel and Jewish speakers being unable to speak in university settings.
The task force distributed handouts with talking points and urged the audience to write letters to the editors and to phone radio shows. They also asked people to demonstrate outside the courthouse on the day of the arraignment wearing black and covering their mouths with tape to symbolize the silencing of free speech.
“It is very important that all of us make the Irvine 11 a priority in our daily lives until the matter is over,” a member of the audience whom speakers identified as the father of defendant Taher Herzallah said. “It’s a case that we all believe is not a criminal case or a misdemeanor. It’s a case of student activism.”