There is little doubt that 10 members of the so-called Irvine 11 broke the law when they plotted to and then disrupted a speech at UC Irvine by Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.
Prosecutors and Constitutional law experts pointed out that free-speech protections are not absolute and that the Muslim students from UCI and UC Riverside knowingly traipsed across a legal line — no matter how thin. A jury agreed, convicting each of the remaining defendants — the 11th wisely opted for community service before the predictable verdict — on misdemeanor charges.
An appeal is in the works, but we don't think the defendants have much of a case. As it was made plain in the trial, free-speech protections don't protect one speaker from drowning out another. The 1st Amendment does not extend to what the prosecution correctly labeled the heckler's veto. So free-speech arguments, no matter how patriotic and emotional, aren't going to expunge these students' criminal records.
But was justice really served in prosecuting these crimes? We don't think so.
The real issue here is whether the Orange County district attorney used limited resources wisely in prosecuting two relatively minor misdemeanors on a college campus. Part of the D.A.'s responsibility is to decide among the many cases that cross his desk which ones are worth the taxpayers' money and which ones aren't. There are just too many crimes committed to go after all of the wrongdoers, but for reasons unclear the Irvine 11 case beat pot-smoking, underage drinking and other college crimes to the docket.
We're not taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here — we would say the same things if Jewish students shouted down a pro-Palestinian speaker. In fact, the defendants' behavior was certainly out of line — and the "genocide" comments they shouted about Israel were naïve, inaccurate, offensive and inappropriate — but we see no good in turning college students into criminals because they interrupted an on-campus speaker. To accuse Oren of war crimes, for example, is as ridiculous as it is insensitive, but ridiculous and insensitive speech has long been part of the university experience in this country.
College students will too quickly find their speech chilled on the other side of graduation by image-conscious employers, search-engine results, and other societal gags that make people think twice about sharing their deeply held views. At least let them have their say while they're young.
UCI's law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent Constitutional law expert, disagreed with the decision to prosecute — not because the students didn't commit a crime, they did, but because they committed a crime of political passion so minor it warranted overlooking. UCI disciplined the students, and he said that was good enough. It was.