UCI students could face grand jury

The college students who interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech last year at UC Irvine -- the so-called “Irvine 11" -- may face a grand jury and criminal charges in the coming weeks, a lawyer representing some of the students said Friday.

Carol Sobel, an attorney representing six Muslim Student Union (MSU) supporters, said her clients were subpoenaed this month and have testified to the Orange County Grand Jury. Grand jury proceedings are confidential.

KPCC radio broke the story on Thursday’s “AirTalk” program, where hosts talked to Sobel and UCI’s founding law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, about the possible charges facing the students.

Although the Orange County district attorney’s office cannot comment on possible grand jury proceedings, Sobel said the subpoenas point to a grand jury investigation.

“It’s pretty much a certainty,” Sobel said, later adding, “In light of the fact that all the physical evidence was available publicly, including video of the students engaging in the protest, I don’t see what the secret goal of a grand jury is, except to file a felony conspiracy charge.”

The 11 students, eight from UCI and three from UC Riverside, were arrested after interrupting the visiting ambassador’s speech. The students argued that Oren represented a country that has broken international and humanitarian law, and they were offended by his presence.

After the arrests, the MSU was suspended for half an academic year and e-mails were made public that revealed that the protest might have been planned in advance rather than being spontaneous, as some MSU members have said.

The organization, which was reinstated on campus Jan. 3, has more than 200 members. The group will be on probation through December 2012.

Sobel said most of the evidence is public, including the discipline letter from UCI, video footage and the e-mails.

She also mentioned it’s an “interesting case” because there was no physical damage done during the disruption.

She declined to discuss the politics of the campus. However, she did say that it’s public knowledge that many have been vocal with the University of California system about the handling of the 11 students.

“There were a lot of statements made by the administration and public statements made by various community groups opposing the Palestinian position, threatening to withhold money from the university if the students weren’t treated as harshly,” she said.

The Zionist Organization of America called UCI’s political climate “anti-Semitic” shortly after the incident. UCI said there wasn’t evidence to support that claim.

Jewish and Muslim students actively protested after the arrests.

“We have a judicial system. We have to let the legal course play out,” said Shalom Elcott, president of the Irvine-based Jewish Federation & Family Services. “As we’ve said repeatedly, our greatest concern moving forward is that we improve qualitatively the student experience at UCI, not just for Jewish students, for all students.”

Ameena Qazi, deputy executive director and staff attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was disappointed to hear about the possible charges.

“We feel it be extremely excessive,” she said. “We hope that the Orange County DA’s office, Tony Rackauckas in particular, is aware of the chilling effect such prosecution would have on free speech. It’s not in Orange County’s best interest to have these proceedings go forward.”

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney agreed.

“We’re not aware of any other instance where limited disruption of a public meeting was charged by a grand jury,” said Peter Bibring, an ACLU staff attorney in Los Angeles. “It’s likely to discourage students everywhere from speaking out and it’s a questionable use of resources. College campuses are where we expect students to speak freely and passionately about their ideas.”

In two weeks it will be the one-year anniversary of the arrests and the statute of limitations will have passed for possible misdemeanor charges.

“Feb. 8 is fast upon us,” Sobel said. “I fully expect (the indictments) will come down before then.”

The campus pro-Israel student group, Anteaters for Israel, did not respond to e-mails seeking comment Friday.