In an emotional conclusion to a case that generated national debate over free speech rights, an Orange County jury has found 10 Muslim students guilty of criminal charges for disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on the UC Irvine campus last year.
The students, who faced up to a year in jail on the misdemeanor counts, were sentenced to three years of probation, 56 hours of community service and fines. Each was convicted of one misdemeanor count of conspiring to disrupt Oren’s Feb. 8, 2010, speech and a second count for disrupting it.
Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who was in the courtroom for the verdict Friday, said the students’ behavior amounted to censorship and “thuggery.”
“In a civilized society,” he said, “we cannot allow lawful assemblies to be shut down by a small group of people using the heckler’s veto.”
The verdict took the jury of six men and six women a little more than two days to reach, and reaction was swift.
“Absolutely unbelievable,” Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said of the verdict. “I believe the heart of America has died today.
“This is clearly an indication that Muslims are permanent foreigners, at least in Orange County.”
Attorneys for the students vowed to appeal.
Some Jewish community leaders lauded the verdict.
The planned disruption “crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance,” said Shalom C. Elcott, president and chief executive of the local Jewish Federation & Family Services. “While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support ‘hate speech.’”
The mood was tense Friday when the jury filed into the Santa Ana courtroom with the decision. After the defendants waived their right to individual verdicts, Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson admonished the approximately 150 in attendance to maintain decorum.
“Please remain in control of your emotions at all times,” he said.
That failed, however, to prevent a passionate response from the spectators when the verdict was read. A number of those in attendance wept, while more than a dozen stormed out in anger.
The defendants, however, showed little emotion: One bit his lip, another closed his eyes, a third winced. Only one, Mohammad Uns Qureashi, visibly shed a tear. When the jury was polled, the defendants stared back at them.
Outside the courtroom, the mother of Khalid Bahgat Akari, one of the 10 defendants, said the verdict shocked her. Lina Akari, 45, of Murrieta, said she had trusted the U.S. court system and had raised her son to relish the right to free speech.
“I taught him that you can express your mind,” she said. “I don’t understand what happened.
“I said here you can have freedom of speech — and look what happened.”
Before the trial, charges against one defendant were tentatively dismissed pending completion of 40 hours of community service at a soup kitchen. But the other 10 went on trial Sept. 11 before large, and at times noisy, crowds.
The case centered on conflicting views of who was being censored — Oren, who had been invited to the campus, or the students who took turns shouting him down as he tried to give a speech on U.S.-Israeli relations.
Prosecutors contended the students broke the law by organizing in e-mails and meetings to disrupt Oren’s speech. Defense attorneys argued that a guilty verdict in the case would stifle student activism at colleges nationwide. They likened their clients’ actions to the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
Among the comments shouted that night by the defendants in support of the Palestinian cause: “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!” and “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!”
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner told jurors during the trial that the subjects chosen by the students in their protest were irrelevant.
“Who is the censor in this case?” Wagner asked the jurors, pointing to the defendants. “Right there — 10 of them.”
On Friday, Wagner said of the verdict and sentencing: “We happen to think that upholding the rights of the speaker and the audience was well worth” taxpayer dollars. “If it chills unlawful conduct, I guess that’s the idea.”
Campus police detained the hecklers, and Oren, after leaving the stage, eventually was persuaded to return and finish his speech.
University administrators disciplined some of the students involved and suspended the campus Muslim Student Union, some of whose members participated in the protest, for an academic quarter.
After the verdict Friday, UCI spokesman Rex Bossert issued a statement saying that the university “considered those sanctions sufficient. We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view.”
Legal scholars such as Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, agreed with the university’s punishment, noting that speech used to squelch another’s 1st Amendment right is not constitutionally protected.
But he and others were critical of Rackauckas bringing criminal charges against the students. Critics called the charges political grandstanding over a nonviolent event that stoked the flames of a controversy that seemed to have died down months ago.
“It’s unnecessary and it’s harmful. It’s unnecessarily divisive,” Chemerinsky said Friday. “Now this keeps it an open wound.”
He said the students had, indeed, broken the law.
“There’s no free speech right to disrupt an event,” he said. But he added, “I think it’s a shame that they now have misdemeanor convictions.”
The seven UCI and three UC Riverside students, in addition to Bahgat Akari and Uns Qureashi, are Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, Joseph Tamim Haider, Taher Mutaz Herzallah, Shaheen Waleed Nassar, Ali Mohammad Sayeed, Osama Ahmen Shabaik and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina.
UCI has a history of conflicts over Jewish-Muslim relations, with speakers from both sides garnering protests. More seriously, in 2003 a Holocaust memorial was vandalized and a year later an anti-Zionist mural by a group of Arab students was burned. In May, posters appeared on campus equating the Star of David with a swastika.
“When history books are written and this case comes to its final conclusion ... the Irvine 11 will stand alongside other civil rights heroes,” said Ameena Qazi, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.
In sentencing the students, Judge Wilson said he considered their clean records and how they have been productive members of society, adding that they were “motivated by beliefs.”
The 10 students have until Jan. 21 to complete the community service.