A leading Los Angeles Jewish rights organization on Tuesday came out in support of the Orange County district attorney's decision to file criminal charges against 11 students who interrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
In a statement on its website, the Simon Wiesenthal Center commended District Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who charged the so-called "Irvine 11" with two misdemeanor counts each of planning to and disrupting a public meeting or lawful assembly.
"The public needs to be sensitized to the ramifications of disrupting someone else's free speech," Rabbi Aron Hier, campus outreach director at the center, told the Daily Pilot.
On Tuesday, the first anniversary of the Feb. 8, 2010, speech, the Wiesenthal Center posted Hier's online interview with Rackauckas.
"This case involves a clear violation of law, where a group of people conspired to interrupt a lawful meeting and violated the First Amendment rights of the speaker and the hundreds who gathered to listen," Rackauckas said in the interview.
In a preface to the interview, which was posted on the center's website, the Wiesenthal Center commended Rackauckas' actions.
Following an Orange County Grand Jury investigation, the Irvine 11 were charged Friday.
The students, who range in age from 19 to 23, denied the allegations against them through an attorney who was advising them during a grand jury investigation. The Muslim Student Union, to which some of the charged students belong, has also long contended that its members didn't break the law.
The 11 students, who attend UCI and UC Riverside, are to be arraigned March 11. If convicted, their sentences could range from probation to six months in jail.
"This is an important landmark case which needs to be brought into the public view," Hier said.
Even if the incident did not involve Jewish or Muslim students, it would still be a matter of free speech, he said.
"Jewish students and officials have a right not to be victimized on campuses," the Wiesenthal Center said in a recent letter written in support of Rackauckas.
Marya Bangee, a UCI alumna and a former MSU vice-president who now heads the "Stand with the Irvine 11" campaign, denounced the Simon Wiesenthal Center's support of the district attorney's charges.
"I do think it's sad, and it's troubling," she said. "Almost every single progressive or social justice organization has come down in support of the Irvine 11, including the president of the UCI law school, Erwin Chemerinsky."
Bangee argued that college life and activism are often intertwined.
"As a youth activist and a former student activist, the charges against the 11 students are problematic, to say the least," she said. "I think this type of case will have a chilling effect on student activism and that's very unfortunate."
The Wiesenthal Center crusades against anti-Semitism worldwide and operates the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The group is named after the late Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who became a prominent Nazi hunter after World War II.
While the D.A.'s decision to charge the 11 drew praise from the Wiesenthal Center, a cross-section of religious leaders from Orange County sent an open letter to Rackauckas last week questioning the charges.
"Most importantly, indicting these students would have a severe chilling effect on the exercise of free speech on campuses and elsewhere," said the letter, which was signed by 21 people of many faiths, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
"Because the right to freely express oneself, particularly against government policies, is a cherished freedom protected by our Constitution, only in very narrow circumstances may these activities be subdued by state action."
The American Civil Liberties Union also came out in their support.