There must be something better for the Orange County district attorney to do than go after the "Irvine 11," the students who were charged Friday with disrupting a February 2010 speech by Israel's ambassador to the United States at UC Irvine. The students from UCI and UC Riverside were out of line and disrespectful, but what they did hardly warrants legal attention, much less the relatively obscure misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and disturbance of a meeting.
In our view this event was internal to UCI, which handled the matter appropriately by suspending the Muslim Student Union. We don't see anything particularly out of the ordinary about students protesting the appearance of a public figure, in this case Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, on a university campus. Though we sympathize with the lack of deserved respect Oren was shown, a figure of his standing is certainly accustomed to encountering dissent.
The campus environment also needs to be considered; college students have longed protested the presence of those with whom they disagree. The defendants range in age from 19 to 23. Maybe they should be charged with immaturity.
It would have been far better if the demonstrators listened to what Oren had to say and then commented afterward. But college students sometimes let their emotions trump reason, and that's all that happened — at least as far as we know — at UCI. Universities should be safe havens for free speech — a right that does not just apply to the scheduled speakers — and a place where students can learn from mistakes that would have greater consequences on the other side of graduation day.
None of this means the students did no wrong. Surely there is credence to the argument that the students may have violated Oren's First Amendment rights by preventing him from speaking. We are also concerned about the lack of respect shown to those who attended the speech. But even if the students did plan the disruption, as prosecutors allege and the defendants deny, we believe they should be granted some leniency. We don't see any evidence that the students wanted any harm to come to Oren.
The students indeed disrupted the meeting, and they may have very well planned the event, but this is one of those cases where the letter of the law is in conflict with the spirit of the law. The charges should be dropped.