Free Speech Triumphs Over Irvine 11

Ten Muslim students convicted for shouting down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

Last Friday, in a resounding victory for free speech rights, a jury convicted 10 Muslim students for disrupting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's speech on February 8, 2010 at the University of California, Irvine. The jury also convicted the students of conspiring to disrupt the ambassador because they stood up, one after the other, and shouted prepared statements, such as "You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!" and "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech," which elicited cheers from supporters. Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson sentenced the defendants to 56 hours of community service and three years of informal probation, which could be reduced to one year if the defendants complete their community service by January 31, 2012. Each student was also ordered to pay $270 in fines. Wilson noted that the defendants' actions did not merit jail time because they were "motivated by their beliefs and did not disrupt for the sake of disrupting."

Prosecutors in the case contended that the protest by the "Irvine 11" (one student agreed to community service earlier in the proceedings and was not subject to the final judgment) had been carefully planned, noting that emails exchanged among members of the Muslim Student Union prior to their demonstration revealed students were aware they could be arrested. They further argued that the orchestrated disruption amounted to censorship, infringing on the rights of the 700 people who had gone to the event to hear Mr. Oren. The program was cut short as a result of the heckling, despite repeated calls from campus officials for the students to behave.

Defense attorneys contended that there were no specific rules for free speech, and that while the students may have been discourteous, that discourtesy did not rise to the level of breaking the law. Lawyer Reem Salahi, representing two of the defendants, claimed the demonstration was modeled after a series of protests at UC Irvine and elsewhere, during which students shouted down lecturers, but weren’t arrested. She further claimed the demonstration never intended to halt Oren’s speech entirely. Both the prosecuting and defending attorneys used pie charts to demonstrate how much time the students spent disrupting Mr. Oren, how long their supporters cheered in response, and how long the Israeli ambassador spoke, in order to prove whether or not the lecture suffered a "significant" disruption.

A jury of six men and six women deliberated for two days before reaching their verdict. After it was rendered, they left the courtroom via a back door, escorted by sheriff's deputies. They refused to answer questions from reporters.

Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner expressed his satisfaction with the outcome. "We're delighted the jury saw this the same way we saw it," he said, noting that the defendants' action amounted to a "heckler's veto" of Mr. Oren's free speech rights. Defense attorney Dan Stormer disagreed. "You cannot convict people in this country based on the content of their speech," he contended. "That's one of the basic principles of our society." Wagner countered that it was not the students' speech that warranted a conviction, adding it wouldn't have mattered if the defendants had read from the phone book, or shouted "Mickey Mouse." It was their conduct, he argued, which resulted in Mr. Oren being forced from the stage before he could finish his lecture.

Unsurprisingly, the verdict, which elicited gasps and some crying from the approximately 150 relatives and supporters of the defendants present in the court room, was branded an expression of religious bigotry. "This is yet another reaffirmation that Islamophobia is intensely and extensively alive and thriving in Orange County," said Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "I believe this will be used as precedent now to suppress speech and dissent throughout the country. This is the beginning of the death of democracy." Father Wilfredo Benitez, rector of St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove, agreed. “This attack against Muslim students and the Muslim community is an attack on democracy. It’s an attack on all of us,” he said. “It’s an attack on all those people who believe in the U.S. Constitution and freedom of speech.” Rev. Sarah Halverson of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa claimed that "Islamophobia is alive and well in Orange County."

Prior to the trial, the defendants' attorneys argued that charges should never have been filed, noting that the issue had been handled on campus. UC Irvine did cite, release and discipline the individuals involved, they revoked the Muslim Student Union's charter for a quarter, and they placed the student organization on two years of probation. Other community members claimed the trial was a waste of taxpayer money and that the defendants were singled out because they are Muslim.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who conducted a news conference after the trial, wasn't buying any of it. 'Today, an Orange County jury sent what I believe to be a strong message that First Amendment rights belong to everybody, and we will not tolerate a small group wanting to shut down speeches on a campus or anyplace." He dismissed the bigotry angle as well. 'It's not Islamophobic; it's not against or for any particular group," Rackauckas said. "This is strictly about the rule of law and not allowing one group to shut down another. And, if it was the opposite and it was an Israeli group shutting down a Muslim group, we'd do exactly the same thing."

He further noted that the First Amendment is not absolute, and that it does not include the right to cancel out someone else's exercise of free speech. "If heckler's veto was allowed, then no one would have the right to free speech. Freedom does not mean that no one can tell me what I can do. That's not freedom; that's anarchy," he said.

Rackauckas also took issue with defense lawyer Jacqueline Goodman's characterization of the students as "heroes" who acted in the "tradition of the finest American political activists." "They're not being civil rights heroes, they're actually being an opposite of that," he countered. "They're trying to stop somebody from exercising their civil rights."

Undaunted by the verdict, defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman vowed to appeal. "We're going to stand up and fight this," she said, "even if it means going to the Supreme Court."

Shalom Elcott, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, and one of the sponsors of Oren's UCI talk, released a statement praising the verdict. "The verdict reaffirms that the Muslim Student Union's planned and systematic use of disruptions to trample on the free speech of others crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance. While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support 'hate speech,'" it read.

The legal essence of this case turned on the point at which one exercise of free speech constitutes censorship or suppression of another exercise of free speech. But other implications are clear. Politicized Islam, particularly on campuses, is an aggressive movement, and the Muslim students involved in this case have adopted the totalitarian tactic of "shouting down" a speaker with whom they disagree -- or worse, engaging in a level of disruption or intimidation that prevents a speaker from speaking at all. Sadly, they have convinced a number of young Americans that such tactics, which they use to promoting racist, anti-Semitic demagoguery, are legitimate forms of free expression.

Roqayah Chamseddine, whose Web site identifies her as a Lebanese-American based in the United States, expressed the essence of that demagoguery. "I hope they don’t think the guilty verdict will cause us to stop mobilizing, disrupting, smashing apartheid; we’re going to get louder." Mobilizing? Mobilize away. Disrupting and smashing? Orange County prosecutors have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that decent Americans no longer have to tolerate anarchy masquerading as free speech.

Hopefully other prosecutors will follow their lead.