In a Santa Ana courtroom Monday, closing arguments will be heard in a case involving Muslim students and the right to free speech. But the so-called Irvine 11 trial, the issues of which are deeply rooted at UC Irvine, has not quite resonated on campus -- yet.
The jury’s verdict is what could matter, said David Snow, co-director of the school’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, a group that promotes reconciliation. “The hammer hasn’t really fallen yet.”
There is no doubt that the shouting down of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren by students at UC Irvine last year was raucous and reignited Israeli-Arab tensions on campus. The defense says the students had the right to yell in protest. Prosecutors say the students went too far.
Aminah Galal, a UC Irvine senior involved with the Muslim Student Union, the campus group that organized the protest, is preparing for the fall quarter, which begins Thursday. She expects the Irvine 11 trial will have a chilling effect on free speech, no matter the outcome.
The case creates a “fear of student activism,” she said. “Now, students think twice” about something that she considers a valuable aspect of campus life.
It was on Feb. 8 of last year when Oren, at the invitation of several UC Irvine organizations and academic departments, came to give a speech about U.S.-Israeli relations. One student after another stood and shouted at the stage, accusing Israel of oppressing Palestinians.
“Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” one student said.
“You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide,” another yelled.
In the end, there were 10 interruptions and a shortened speech. The protesters were peacefully escorted out by police, and 11 were cited for disrupting a public event.
UC Irvine quickly punished the Muslim Student Union, suspending it for a year and placing it on disciplinary probation for another year.
Then, seven months ago, the Orange County district attorney’s office filed criminal charges.
The students, seven of them from UC Irvine and three from UC Riverside, are each charged with a misdemeanor for conspiring to disrupt Oren’s speech and a misdemeanor for disrupting his speech. Charges against an 11th defendant were dropped pending completion of community service.
The students face up to six months in jail if convicted.
A gag order imposed by Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson prevented those involved in the trial from being interviewed. But the day charges were filed,Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas released a statement in which he said, “We must decide if we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s law school, has said that “freedom of speech never has been regarded as an absolute right to speak out at any time and in any manner,” but he made clear in an interview last week that university sanctions were enough.
“It makes no sense here to use these resources,” he said of Rackauckas’ decision. “It’s so minor.”
Don Will, director of the peace studies program at Chapman University, agreed and said the trial only makes the Muslim community feel “victimized.”
“There’s a political component by the D.A.'s office,” he said. “This is not some serious crime. Protests are protests.”
About 100 UC Irvine faculty members, including five deans, asked Rackauckas to drop the charges. A group of faculty members from across the UC system, many of whom teach Jewish studies, did the same.
UC Irvine is no stranger to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Authors Norman Finkelstein, who wrote “The Holocaust Industry,” and Alan Dershowitz, who wrote “The Case for Israel,” have spoken on campus, but each proved to “generate more heat than light,” Will said.
One speech that surfaced in the Irvine 11 testimony involved Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an Islamic activist who in 2001 visited UC Irvine to preach what many saw as anti-Semitism. He was interrupted by students in much the same way Oren was. Malik Ali returned in 2006 amid more protests. No prosecutions resulted either time.
There were other incidents as well. In 2003, a Holocaust memorial was vandalized. The next year, an anti-Zionist mural by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. No arrests were made in either case. In 2006, UC Irvine housing was defaced by a swastika and profanity. Last May, after posters on campus equated the Star of David with a swastika, dozens of outraged UC Irvine faculty members issued a call for civility.
Snow, however, said things were better on campus and cited the Olive Tree Initiative, which sends students of different faiths to the Middle East to explore peaceful resolution.
At UC Irvine on Friday, the campus bookstore was busy as students prepared for the next quarter. Edith Ruiz, 24, said that only those directly involved in the debate were following the trial. “I had completely forgotten about it,” she said.
Ryan Jenner, president of the campus group Anteaters for Israel, said any changes in campus climate would have come when the district attorney pressed charges. So far, the case hasn’t influenced programming for the group.
“Jewish student life is unaffected by this case whatsoever,” Jenner, 20, said. “We continue to thrive and grow as a community.”
Outside court last Thursday, Erum Siddiqui, 19, a UC Irvine sophomore, said the Irvine 11 case is about human rights.