Attorneys have filed an appeal in Orange County Superior Court on behalf of 10 of the so-called Irvine 11 convicted in 2011 of two misdemeanor charges to conspire and then disrupt a 2010 speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine.
The 10 defendants, Muslim UC Irvine and UC Riverside students, were sentenced to three years of informal probation and 56 hours of community service.
Charges against an 11th student were dropped after he agreed to 40 hours of community service at Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa.
The case sparked fierce debate over whether the students' or Oren's free speech rights were violated, and whether the district attorney's office should have filed criminal charges in the first place.
In an appeal brief filed Tuesday, attorneys alleged that the students were convicted on the basis of an "unconstitutionally vague" state law prohibiting the willful disturbance of meetings.
"The basic premise is that this statute, as applied, makes completely lawful political speech a criminal act, and the 1st Amendment was never intended to allow that," said Dan Stormer, one of several lawyers representing the group.
Though a 1970 California Supreme Court decision "tried to fix the statute" by giving it more specific limits, the jury's instructions on how to apply the statute in question were still fuzzy, said Lisa Jaskol, directing attorney of the Public Counsel Law Center's appellate law program.
"The thing is the jury's role in trials is not to decide questions of law, but to decide questions of fact," she said, and in this case, jurors were essentially asked to do the former.
But Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, a prosecutor working on the case, said that because the California Supreme Court had already ruled on the constitutionality of the statute, he's confident the conviction will be upheld.
"Furthermore, their behavior is not the type of behavior or conduct that is protected by the 1st Amendment," he added. "The evidence showed they were intent on taking away the ambassador's right to free speech."
Prosecutors now have at least a month to file a response. The case is likely to be heard by the superior court's appellate division — not a state court of appeals — in several months.
Stormer said the students are "all doing very well." Several have continued on to graduate school, he said, and all have completed their required community service.
"These young people are the cream of our academic crop," he said. "The idea that you could stand up in a meeting and make a political statement and that is a crime is absolutely abhorrent to our justice system."