SANTA ANA, Calif. – A jury convicted 10 Muslim students on Friday of disrupting a talk by the Israeli ambassador on a university campus in a case that has stoked an intense debate about free speech.
The students also were convicted of conspiring to disrupt Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech in February 2010 at the University of California, Irvine.
The students were charged with misdemeanor counts after standing up, one by one, and shouting prepared statements such as “propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,”’ which were followed by cheers from supporters.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson sentenced the defendants to 56 hours of community service and three years of informal probation.
The judge found that the incident did not merit jail time, and he added that the probation period would be reduced to one year if the community service is completed by the end of January 2012. Minimal court fines and fees were also assessed against the 10 students.
About 150 people including relatives and supporters of the students and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas attended the verdict in a case that often packed the courtroom. Some community members gasped and started crying when the verdict was read and about a dozen walked out.
The case has stoked an impassioned debate in the affluent suburbs southeast of Los Angeles about free speech rights.
Some community members called the trial a waste of taxpayers’ money and said prosecutors were singling out the defendants because they are Muslim.
Khalid Akhari, a 19-year-old bio-engineering major at the nearby University of California, Riverside, said the jury’s decision doesn’t change how he feels about what he did that evening, but he worries it could have a chilling effect on student protests.
“I don’t want people to feel like they should be scared that they’re going to be prosecuted,” Akhari said. “If you want to stand for your message, you need to stand for your message. You have to be ready to accept the consequences.”’
Prosecutors said the students broke the law by interrupting Oren’s speech on U.S.-Israel relations and cutting short the program despite calls to behave from campus officials. Defense attorneys argued the students had a right to protest.
Rackauckas said a line must be drawn between protests that are lawful and those that aren’t. Had the situation been reversed, with Israeli students protesting a Muslim speaker in this way, he said he would have prosecuted the demonstrators just the same.
“Any way you look at this, this is censorship,” Rackauckas told reporters after the verdict. “It’s not against or for any particular group. This is strictly about the rule of law and not allowing one group to shut down another.”’
Defense attorneys said they would appeal the ruling and challenge a law that broadly defines a disruption of speech irrespective context. They argued there is a difference between protesting at a political event, for example, and in a courtroom.
After the verdict, the attorneys praised students for their bravery in standing up to Oren and compared them to civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr.
“This jury verdict, I think, should be worn as a badge of courage,”’ Tarek Shawky, one of six defense attorneys working on the case, told reporters.
Free speech experts say the verdict was anticipated in light of similar cases involving a so-called “heckler’s veto”’ in which individuals try to shout over a speaker. But such cases don’t often go to trial, said Joseph Russomanno, an associate professor of journalism and communication at Arizona State University who focuses on free speech issues.
On Friday, the sponsor of Oren’s speech, the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, praised the verdict while an interfaith coalition of community groups denounced it and vowed to support the students for protesting the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza.
UC Irvine said in a statement that it supports free speech.
“We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view,”’ said Rex Bossert, a university spokesman.
During the trial, prosecutor Dan Wagner told jurors the students infringed upon the rights of 700 people who had gone to the Irvine campus to hear Oren. He showed video footage of university officials pleading with students to stop interrupting the diplomat’s speech and emails sent among members of UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union planning the disruption and calculating who was willing to get arrested.
Defense attorneys countered that there were no hard rules for the speech and that students might have been discourteous but did not break the law. Lawyer Reem Salahi, who represented two of the defendants, said the demonstration was modeled after a series of protests at UC Irvine and elsewhere in which students shouted at lecturers but weren’t arrested. She said the demonstration never intended to halt Oren’s speech entirely.
Attorneys for both sides showed dueling pie charts breaking down how much time the students demonstrated, how long their supporters cheered and how much time Oren spoke to prove whether the meeting suffered a significant disruption.
Attorneys for the students—who attended UC Irvine and UC Riverside—argued before the trial that charges should never have been filed and that the issue was already handled on campus.
In 2010, the students were cited, released and disciplined at UC Irvine, which revoked the Muslim Student Union’s charter for a quarter and placed it on two years of probation.
Earlier this year, 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. Charges against one defendant are being dropped.