Some afraid to speak up at UC Irvine

Editor’s note: This updated version changes a description of UC Irvine student Hadeer Soliman’s demeanor.

IRVINE — It was like any other day at UC Irvine’s Cross-Cultural Center, a hub where campus groups congregate for official events or just hang out.

Some students were chatting socially while others were buried in their books. A small group gathered outside on prayer rugs facing Mecca.

They belonged to UCI’s Muslim Student Union, one of the most visible groups on campus. The MSU hosts some 300 events a year, many of which attract upward of 100 Muslim participants each. This past quarter has been no exception, but the union is approaching the next quarter, which starts at the end of the month, with some trepidation.

On Friday, the so-called “Irvine 11" are scheduled to be arraigned in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and then disturbing it.

The 11 students, eight from UCI and three from UC Riverside, made national headlines on Feb. 8, 2010. They were arrested then at UCI for allegedly disrupting an on-campus speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, with shouts of war crime accusations.

After a campus investigation into the MSU’s alleged role in planning and orchestrating the disruption of Oren’s speech, UCI officials punished the students and suspended the MSU for the first quarter of the 2010-11 academic year.

In February, Orange County District Atty. Tony Rackauckas brought criminal charges against the 11 men. If convicted, each faces probation, fines, and up to six months in jail, according to the district attorney’s office.

The charges were supported by many Jewish leaders, including the respected Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, but a liberal Jewish group, as well as a consortium of interfaith leaders, denounced them as attempting to squash free speech.

MSU members now worry that a stigma has been attached to the group that will inhibit the exercise of free speech by its members.

“Coming from a suspension, a lot of people were wondering, ‘Is it OK to wear my MSU shirt?’” said Hadeer Soliman, a senior and MSU board member active with the group for three years. “There’s definitely a lot of apprehension these days about being vocal about one’s opinion.”

Soliman, 21, wore a hijab and spoke directly. Her cheerfulness masked a concern that casting the protest in a criminal light could keep other students from speaking their minds.

“Since the 11 students were charged, there’s been a huge chilling effect — that’s very clear,” she said.

In her opinion, the D.A.'s charges constitute selective enforcement.

“People think they’ve been charged specifically because they’re dealing with Israel-Palestine, or because they’re Muslim,” she said. “Either way, there’s a message that’s being sent: Don’t speak up if your opinion is not popular.”

Hamza Siddiqui, a senior serving his first year on the MSU board, said the charges have inhibited political activism on campus.

“People are afraid to do things they might normally do or that they’ve seen students do at other campuses,” said Siddiqui, 22. “Forms of political dissent that have been tolerated in the past are no longer tolerated.”

MSU members aren’t the only ones who think that Rackauckas has gone too far. A petition condemning the Irvine 11 charges has been signed by a group of 100 UCI faculty members, including the university’s law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar.

In his view, the punishment meted out by the university “should be deemed sufficient. There is no need for criminal prosecution.”

UCI political science professor Cecelia Lynch is worried that the D.A.'s decision to prosecute points to larger political trends.

She was especially concerned about “the criminalization of student protest on campus, including the Irvine 11, whether or not one agrees with this particular action.”

“It is terrible that this takes place in a context in which Muslims are again being used as a foil for national fears, exemplified by the congressional hearings to be held soon,” Lynch said, referring to this week’s congressional hearings into Muslim Americans

Rackauckas has defended his office’s actions by arguing that that the Irvine 11 criminally prevented others from speaking freely at a public assembly. A spokeswoman for his office has also dismissed accusations that the charges are politically motivated.

“It is the sworn duty of the district attorney to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California,’” Rackauckas said in a prepared statement released in February. “Freedom of speech is a precious Constitutional right that goes to the heart of our democratic form of government. This case is being filed because there was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI.

“These defendants meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting. This is a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution.”