In a trial that never should have taken place, ten Muslim students at UC Irvine were convicted Friday of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador on campus last spring.
The twelve-person jury deliberated for two days before agreeing with the prosecutor that coordinated shouts of protest against Israeli policy had violated a law against disrupting public meetings. The students and their supporters argued that they had exercised their freedom of speech, that Ambassador Michael Oren’s talk had been delayed only briefly and that the students were prosecuted because they were Muslims.
The judge sentenced the students to fifty-six hours of community service and up to three years of probation. The students were found guilty of two misdemeanors, including one conspiracy charge for planning their protest.
Oren appeared on campus (where I teach history) in February 2010. As Oren began his speech, a student stood up and shouted “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” Police removed him from the room, and then another rose and shouted at Oren, “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!” He was removed, and nine more followed. A total of eleven were arrested. (One pled guilty to reduced charges, so only ten went to trial.) The longest interruption, defense attorneys told the jury, lasted only eight seconds, and the total amount of time taken up by the eleven statements—combined—was roughly one minute.
Video of the event shows supporters of the ambassador in the audience also shouting, further delaying the proceedings, but they were not removed, arrested or put on trial. The ambassador went on to deliver his speech after a delay of about twenty minutes.
The convictions made headlines around the world—Google News lists 465 news articles. It wasn’t just the Islamic and left-wing press that objected to the trial. The Los Angeles Times in an editorial called it “a case that never should have been filed.” Even the Orange County Register, a Republican newspaper, said the verdict “chills speech,” and called the case an example of “selective prosecution” that had been “used arbitrarily.”
A group of 100 faculty members, including five deans, had asked Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to drop the charges, arguing that the students had already been punished by the university—which also banned the Muslim Student Union for one quarter last year—and that further punishment was wrong. The group Jewish Voice for Peace also condemned the prosecution, delivering a petition with 5,000 signatures to the DA at the start of the trial.
The students are likely to appeal, keeping the case in the news for another year or two.