Irvine 11 defense: Oren went to Lakers game afterward

SANTA ANA — The Israeli ambassador to the United States did not take questions after completing his speech at UC Irvine last year so that he could attend a Lakers game, according to opening statements made by a defense attorney in the Irvine 11 case.

Prosecutors assert that Muslim UCI and UC Riverside students disrupted Ambassador Michael Oren's February 2010 address, forcing him to cut a planned question-and-answer session.

The prosecution argues that the protesters infringed on Oren's right to speak and the audience's right to engage with and listen to him.

But defense attorneys assert that it was the protesters' right to free speech that was violated.

The 10 students stand charged in the case with two misdemeanor counts for planning to and disrupting Oren's address. An 11th is performing community service that will lead to the charges against him being dropped upon the service's completion.

Defense attorney Lisa Holder said Oren could have stayed after the protesters were led out of his speech, but he instead went to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

"A story is like a coin," Holder said. "Every story has two sides."

Holder asked Orange County Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson to allow photographic evidence showing Oren at the Lakers game with Kobe Bryant. Prosecutors opposed introducing the photo, and Wilson agreed, saying he wanted to prevent a "sideshow."

Defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman said that the student protesters did not break the law but instead exercised free speech in the manner of Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., the very figures they learned about in their classrooms.

Goodman called her clients' effort similar to a 2009 protest at the University of Chicago, where former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was interrupted. Sanah Yassin, a Chicago resident who was called to the witness stand in Santa Ana, participated in that protest.

"I was exercising my freedom of speech," she said.

Never did the Irvine defendants intend on breaking the law nor did they prevent Oren from finishing his speech, Goodman added.

In their emails, which were read to the jury Monday, the students reminded each other to remain civil and not cross legal boundaries. They also consulted an attorney, Goodman said.

There is no legal requirement for the protesters to be nice or hospitable, the defense attorneys asserted.

"It was disruptive," Goodman said, "but not so substantial in a controversial political speech as to constitute a crime."

UCLA English and comparative literature professor Saree Makdisi, the defense's first witness and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told the jurors that based on his expertise and experience, disruptions in an event like Oren's speech are expected and common.

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