Prosecutors and defense attorneys both argued free-speech rights Wednesday during opening statements in the criminal trial against Muslim college students accused of plotting to disrupt a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Prosecutors said the so-called Irvine 11 “shut down” Ambassador Michael Oren, preventing him from freely exchanging ideas with those who went to hear him speak at UC Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010.
Defense attorneys argued that the students expressed political views in a legal protest and that prosecuting them infringes on their rights.
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner said the defendants orchestrated a protest that interrupted Oren’s speech every few seconds by shouting scripted lines and calling him a war criminal.
“They didn’t want to have an exchange of ideas to see who was telling the truth and who was not,” Wagner said. “What their intention was, make no mistake, was to shut him down.”
Wagner presented jurors with what he called a “batting order” of what prosecutors contend was the planned conspiracy for the protesters to end Oren’s speech.
“Usually people in society know what is and isn’t expected,” Wagner said, "… and it happens in this case there were pretty explicit rules given before the talk.”
He said UC Irvine students had been told, “ ‘Yes, we expect civil debate on campus and we relish that.... But we will expect nothing less than civility and courtesy that is becoming this situation.’ ”
The defendants are charged with misdemeanor conspiracy to commit a crime and misdemeanor disruption of a meeting. Seven of them are UC Irvine students and three are enrolled at UC Riverside. Charges were tentatively dropped against an 11th defendant, UC Irvine student Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, who is expected to complete 40 hours of community service.
The first of the six defense attorneys, Daniel Mayfield, addressed jurors with a word written in green: “time.”
He told jurors about the time Oren took to visit the university and the time the defendants had to plan their protest within the limits of the law. He told jurors the speech was 30 minutes late, independent of the student protest, and that the protest lasted a minute.
Defense attorney Reem Salahi then recited to the jury what the students had shouted, including, “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech.”
“The question before you is whether these students committed crimes when they discussed logistics and how to protest Ambassador Oren,” she told the jurors, adding that the students did it “peacefully, albeit rudely, before walking out.”
Two other defense attorneys said they would wait to make their opening statements.
Before Wednesday’s proceedings, a UC Irvine professor, a defendant’s father and members of the Southern California interfaith community addressed the media and accused Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas of prosecuting the students for political reasons — singling them out because they are Muslim.
“This smells of persecution,” said Father Wilfredo Benitez, rector of St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove. “In a free country … this should simply not be happening.”
Moutaz Herzallah, whose son Taher is among the defendants, is originally from Gaza and said he immigrated to the United States “to have peace, dignity and honor.” But Rackauckas, he said, “threw the Constitution in the trash” when he pressed charges against the students.
The jury pool, which was winnowed from 300 over six days, had to complete an eight-page questionnaire that included, among other questions, whether they had studied at UC Irvine or had strong feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The defendants face up to six months in jail if convicted of the two misdemeanor charges. The trial is expected to last through September.