Last Friday a Southern California jury reached a guilty verdict in the case of ten Muslim students charged with conspiring to disrupt a meeting. The students, all men, protested a speech given last year by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren on U.S.-Israeli relations at the University of California, Irvine and called out statements including, "Michael Oren you’re a war criminal!" and "You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!" in response to Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.
The students were sentenced to 56 hours of community service and three years of probation, which will be reduced to one year when the service is completed. The students range in age from 19 to 23 years old. Seven of them are UC Irvine students — Mohamad Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany; Aslam Abbasi Akhtar; Joseph Tamim Haider; Mohammad Uns Qureashi; Ali Mohammad Sayeed; Osama Ahmen Shabaik; and Asaad Mohamedidris.
Three others attend neighboring UC Riverside — Khalid Gahgat Akari; Taher Mutaz Herzallah; and Shaheen Waleed Nassar.
The case has been dubbed the "Irvine 11" (there were formerly 11 students on trial) and garnered national attention. While university campuses have long been sites of dissent and protest, what sets the Irvine 11 apart was the government’s heavy-handed response.
For many observers, the outcome and the fact that the case even went before a Grand Jury at all brings up troubling questions about how censorship laws may be used to stifle progressive speech, particularly by people of color speaking out against politically charged issues.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, calls it a double standard of justice. "When students take over buildings to protest tuition hikes it is not only tolerated, but welcomed as an exercise of free speech. But in this case it is considered a criminal act."
The prosecution successfully argued that it was the defendants who violated Oren’s First Amendment right to free speech. Some legal observers agreed. "There is no First Amendment right to interrupt somebody else’s speech. Especially in a place which is owned by a university, where the university gets to control who gets to enter and who can’t. People can’t just shout down the speaker," Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA, told KPCC’s Patt Morrison shortly before the verdict.
"They certainly are free to speak to themselves outside — they can picket this, they can hand out leaflets outside, but they can’t physically go into the event and drown out the speaker’s voice in a way that the speaker can no longer be heard," Volokh added.
Al-Marayati points to the "right-wing, pro-Israel" agenda to intimidate and silence critics. In a response issued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, executive director Hector Villagra says the verdict will "discourage students from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges."
Even after UC Irvine took disciplinary action against the students, which included temporarily suspending the Muslim Student Union, the Orange County District Attorney went ahead and filed criminal charges against the 11 students. Some claim the DA’s decision was an act of selective prosecution, citing a similar disruption that went unpunished. In that particular incident, the hecklers were Jewish students at a talk by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year in New Orleans.
Southern California Public Radio’s Shirley Jahad reported at the close of the trial that the prosecution argued the case had little to do with the politically-charged issue of the conflict in Palestine.
"In closing arguments [prosecutors] said it wouldn’t have mattered if [the defendants] shouted, "Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse!" It wasn’t the content of what their message was but the conduct of disrupting the speech of the Israeli ambassador that violated the law, according to prosecutors," Jahad wrote.
The ACLU of Southern California called the case "unprecedented" and worries that it will have far-reaching implications for future protests by students of color.
"This raises the question whether the DA may have acted because of the students’ message, which would clearly violate the First Amendment," the group said in a statement. "Even if protests on college campuses occasionally cross a line from protected speech into conduct, prosecutors cannot selectively intervene to punish students who say things they do not like."
Supporters of the Irvine 11 say that the verdict will not prevent future protests. Mustafa, a caller on a local radio station who knows the Irvine 11, said as much according to Southern California Public Radio. "[The verdict is] not going to thwart our efforts to seek justice in Palestine and seek justice all over the world."
"We need to show the world what we think about what’s going on," Mustada added.