September 25, 2011
In News What We Can Do
After more than two days of deliberation, an Orange County jury on Friday found 10 Muslim students guilty of two misdemeanors to conspire and then disrupt a February 2010 speech at UC Irvine last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
There was crying as the verdict was read in Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson’s courtroom. The students showed no visible emotion, although they hugged each afterward. Some also stormed out.
In a case that garnered national attention over free-speech rights, the trial centered on conflicting views of who was being censored. Prosecutors argued that Ambassador Michael Oren was “shut down” when his speech was interrupted by students who took turns shouting preplanned phrases in a crowded UC Irvine ballroom.
Six defense attorneys argued that the students, seven from UC Irvine and three from UC Riverside, were only following the norm of other college protests and were being singled out.
A guilty verdict, the defense had said during the trial, could chill student activism and the free exchange of ideas at colleges nationwide.
University administrators disciplined some of the students involved and suspended the campus Muslim Student Union, whose members participated in the protest, for an academic quarter. The group is still on probation.
The case also has drawn the attention of a wide range of groups, including Muslim and Jewish organizations and civil libertarians. The trial began Sept. 7.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s Law School, has said that although freedom of speech is not an absolute right, university sanctions were enough for the students.
But he also added that he believes criminal sanctions go too far.
Chemerinsky told The Times last week that “it makes no sense” to use such resources. “It’s so minor.”
Charges against one defendant were tentatively dismissed pending completion of 40 hours of community service at a local soup kitchen.
But the other 10 went on trial Sept. 11 before packed, at times noisy, crowds in the courtroom.
— Nicole Santa Cruz and Mike Anton