The Orange County district attorney’s office announced on Feb. 4 that it was filing misdemeanor charges against the 11 students arrested in February 2010 for disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).
The defendants — students at UCI and the University of California, Riverside when the incident took place — have been charged with one count each of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting. Arraignment is scheduled for March 11.
“This case is being filed because there was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in a statement. “These defendants meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting. This is a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution.”
Oren was interrupted repeatedly by boisterous hecklers shouting anti-Israel vitriol and dozens of jeering students as he tried to give a speech about U.S.-Israel relations before a public audience at the UCI Student Center on Feb. 8, 2010. Oren left the stage for 20 minutes after the fourth activist shouted, “Michael Oren, you are a war criminal.” University administrators urged the students to stop the heckling or risk disciplinary action. Oren was interrupted several more times before dozens of protestors stood up and left the room.
During the speech, the protestors could be seen text messaging one another and using their cell phones to videotape the event and the audience.
One of the defendants, Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23, who was then president of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UCI, is accused of meeting with other MSU members in the days leading up to the event to plan the disruption, according to the district attorney’s statement. He is accused of sending an e-mail to the group’s message board announcing “we will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the ambassador’s speech” as well as a “game plan” in which he instructed other students to portray the disruption as the act of individuals, and not the MSU, in order to “put up an obstacle” against the UCI administration in case it was to “come after MSU” following the incident.
University officials spoke to MSU members before Oren’s speech as a precaution to ensure civil discourse, according to Shalom C. Elcott, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County.
MSU members and their supporters have argued that the students’ actions constituted free speech. UCI officials disagreed and charged the group with violating campus codes of conduct for its role in planning and coordinating the disruption, suspending the Muslim council for one year and placing it on probation for a second year. In September, school officials shortened the suspension to four months, but added a year to the probationary period. Members also had to complete 100 hours of community service. The group was reinstated last month.
Fullerton criminal defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman, who is defending seven of the 11 accused, said the charges are unusual, because the students acted no differently than any other protestors have done in the past when planning a demonstration. She accused Rackauckas of trying to silence a point of view he doesn’t like.
“They didn’t actually prevent the Israeli ambassador from getting his message out,” Goodman said during an interview with public radio station KPCC. “It sounds like the DA is saying, ‘You’re free to protest, but you have to be nice.’ By singling out these Muslim students for prosecution it seems to smack of selective prosecution and political opportunism.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said it was “deeply troubled” by the district attorney’s decision.
“We are unaware of any case where a district attorney pressed criminal charges over this type of nonviolent student protest,” the group’s incoming director, Hector Villagra said. “The district attorney’s action will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges.”
Villagra was one of 29 representatives of Southern California civic and religious organizations who signed an open letter to Rackauckas last week urging him not to indict the protestors on criminal charges.
“While we acknowledge that crimes can and do occur on college campuses, we are hard-pressed to understand why a University-specific situation, which was thoroughly dealt with by the UCI administration, would require the OCDA office’s reopening of the matter, particularly by investigating it as a felony crime,” the letter reads.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area (CAIR-LA) coordinated the letter, according to the group’s spokesperson, Munira Syeda. She called the legal probe a waste of money.
“The university has already taken plenty of action by conducting administrative hearings,” Syeda said. “The MSU was punished and sanctions taken. The constituents of Orange County would be served if tax dollars were actually used for catching criminals.”
Rackauckas disagreed with the charge that his actions would deter free speech.
“This is a much different kind of thing,” Rackauckas said. “It’s not just a group of a few student demonstrators. This is an organized plan to stop the Israeli minister from speaking and to stop anybody from hearing what he has to say. It’s a real violation.”
Federation chief Elcott, who works closely with UCI officials to improve strained relations between Muslim and Jewish students on campus, said the matter was beyond the Jewish Federation’s purview.
“There’s a legal process that’s going on, and we have to respect it,” Elcott said. “As a community leader, I feel that it’s really important that we build bridges of interfaith understanding and collaboration and we remain committed to this mission of ours of building civility on campus and making it a great campus for all students.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center commended the Orange County district attorney’s office for its decision to file the charges.
“Zionist and pro-Israel speakers are often subjected to this kind of treatment,” said Rabbi Aron Hier, campus outreach director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The tactic is serving the enemies of Israel. We commend the DA for at least opening the books on this and for promoting an understanding of how all free speech has a right to be heard, even that of Israel and of Jewish students.”
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