Students fight for free speech

Eleven students were accused of illegally disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, last year. The closing arguments started Monday at a Central Justice Center court in Santa Ana, Calif.
Associated Press

By Amy Taxin
Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Ten Muslim students broke the law by shouting down a speech by an Israeli diplomat at the University of California, Irvine in a carefully drafted and executed plan that flouted repeated calls to behave by campus officials, a prosecutor said Monday.

Defense attorneys countered that students acted within the law when they stood up, one by one, and read from pre-scripted statements and never intended to halt Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking about U.S.-Israel relations.

Attorneys delivered closing arguments in the case that has stoked a debate about free speech.

Jurors in the case 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. They could face sentences ranging from probation with community service and fines to a year in jail.

In his closing argument, 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 hear Oren.

“The right to free speech is not absolute,” Wagner said before a packed courtroom 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 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.

Salahi said the students never intended to stop Oren from speaking but instead wanted to express their views on the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza.

On Monday, Wagner and defense attorneys also showed dueling pie charts in an effort to prove whether the meeting suffered a significant disruption.
Wagner also showed video clips of university officials pleading with demonstrators to behave and respect academic freedom. He also showed numerous emails among members of the Muslim Student Union planning the disruption and calculating who was willing to get arrested.

The correspondence, Wagner said, reveals the students knew the risk of their actions and later tried to cover up that the organization was involved in the protest.

“It was always a plan to break the rules,” he said.

Defense attorneys will continue their arguments today.

In 2010, the students were initially cited, released and disciplined at UC Irvine.

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

The charges against one defendant were later dropped.

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