Irvine 11 witness says she was 'frightened'

SANTA ANA — Rhoda Harris, who sat next to a student who later protested the Israeli ambassador's speech, testified Monday that she was upset by the protestors' repeated disruptions.

Harris, a resident of a Laguna Woods retirement community, said the disruptions in February 2010 made it hard to fully understand Ambassador Michael Oren's speech at UC Irvine.

"I couldn't hear, there was shouting, and I was emotionally distracted," she said. "When you're focused on the disruption, you're not focused on the speaker."

When asked if she felt threatened by the students' behavior, she said, "Not at first, but when they removed the ambassador, that frightened me."

The ambassador left the stage after the fourth disruption, but returned to complete his speech.

A defense attorney asked UCI Police Sgt. Mark Arnold whether the college had made plans prior to the speech to arrest students who caused the disruption.

He said the university does not have a policy to arrest students, but also said handcuffs were already in the room where the students were detained.

The students cooperated with police officers and were taken without incident, he said.

Prosecutors read emails sent among the students through a Google group, making the case that the students planned the protest. In the emails, the students discussed ways to protest the ambassador's presence on campus, including reading statements to disrupt him every few minutes, sending a press release and writing an article for the New University, the school's newspaper.

The 10 students from UCI and UC Riverside are charged with two misdemeanor counts for conspiracy to disrupt a public speech then disrupting the speech. Charges against an 11th student will be dropped if he completes community service.

Defense attorneys say the student protestors were exercising their rights to free speech. The Orange County district attorney's office, however, argues that the protestors planned the disruption and interfered with Oren's right to free speech and the audience's right to hear him.

The students face up to six months in jail if convicted.

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