It began as yet another frustrating example of a university refusing to take swift action in a case of aggressive disruption of a pro-Israel event. The belligerent shutdown of a Students Supporting Israel panel discussion occurred at the University of California-Los Angeles on May 17, 2018. That incident has skyrocketed to become the most important potential prosecution of anti-Israel campus disruption in the nation since the Irvine 11. A top Los Angeles City attorney is now actively reviewing the file of evidence and police complaints for possible prosecution under state laws that criminalize the disruption of public meetings, as well as other related statutes.
In the now well-known case, on May 17, Students Supporting Israel gathered in a UCLA function room for a panel discussion titled Indigenous Peoples Unite. Disruptors--suddenly and loudly--stormed into the room mid-session. One person tore down the students’ flag, demonstratively pulled away a desk placard, and cursed threateningly close to the face of a panelist. With bullhorns, whistles, staged dancing, and slogan shouting, the event was shut down. The disruption and nose-to-nose intimidation of the students attending the SSI event was documented in a video, beginning at minute 41.
Although the UCLA administration publicly promised a referral to prosecutors, no such action was taken against the various protestors — both students and non-students, because UCLA campus police were awaiting formal complaints by the intimidated students. Only after such a formal police report is filed do police investigate and determine if a referral to prosecutors is called for. Then, prosecutors weigh the evidence and decide if prosecution is warranted. All students contacted by this reporter stated they did not know they were entitled to make a police report.
After media revelations about UCLA’s inaction, two Jewish groups sprang into action--the Louis D. Brandeis Center, headed by constitutional attorney Alyza Lewin, and the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Center, headed by attorney Yael Lerman. The Washington-based Brandeis Center flew its attorney, Aviva Vogelstein, to LA. Together, Lerman and Vogelstein personally escorted numerous students as well as one member of the community into the UCLA police department where they all filed formal written and verbal complaints.
One such police complaint, obtained by this reporter, was filed by a community member in the room during the event, Laura Leve Cohen, a major donor to the UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, where she serves as an advisory board member. Cohen’s complaint opens with the words: “Have you ever been confronted by an angry mob and not able to leave? I hadn’t. Until Thursday evening, May 17th, 2018 … Midway through the presentation, an angry, out-of-control mob stormed into the classroom, shouting and chanting. Simply put, we were trapped by a crowd of student protestors, surrounded on all sides, and unable to leave the room.”
After processing the collection of complaints, the UCLA police department opened Case 18-1206, assigning it to one of its seasoned detectives, Selby Arsena. Detective Arsena has racked up a many-years-long track record investigating campus violence. One of these included a 2011 stabbing case that resulted in a twelve-year prison sentence.
In mid-July, Arsena delivered his file to Los Angeles City prosecutors at their Pacific Branch, located in a curved building also known as “the Airport Courthouse,” located near Los Angeles International Airport. Quickly, the case was assigned to the office’s assistant supervising attorney, Spencer Hart, a highly-regarded prosecutor with experience in high-profile cases. One notable Hart prosecution involved jail time for a student found guilty false imprisonment at UCLA. A source in the prosecutor’s office characterized Hart’s record of successful prosecutions as one which earned “the number two position in the office.”
Both Arsena and Hart declined to comment for this article.
Just a few days after case 18-206 landed on Hart’s desk, he was emailed a seven-page letter, submitted jointly by the Brandeis Center and the StandWithUs legal center, a copy of which was obtained by this reporter. The joint letter was a polished and detailed review of the evidence, legal precedent, and case law.
“There is strong California precedent to prosecute and convict disruptors who violate criminal law in their attempt to silence speakers on campus,” the letter asserted. It continued, “In a similar fact pattern in 2011, a jury convicted ten student members of the Muslim Student Union of a misdemeanor for disrupting former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, in a coordinated effort at a public event at the University of California-Irvine (“UC Irvine”) … [later] upheld by a panel of three Orange County Superior Court judges. We believe that the facts in the case before you, Criminal Report #18-1206, merit similar prosecution and would result in similar convictions.”
The Brandeis-SWU letter specified the alleged potential criminal violations Brandeis and SWU had previously itemized in a letter to UCLA administrators: “§ 403 – disturbance of an assembly or meeting, § 415 – disturbing the peace; § 182 - criminal conspiracy to do the aforementioned’” and added two more based on additional research: “§ 242 – battery; § 664 – unsuccessful attempt to commit battery; and § 594 – vandalism.” The letter is jointly signed by Lewin, Vogelstein, and Lerman, the three of which have become the most active in the effort to see the matter prosecuted.
Lewin commented, “This disruption was egregious and unlawful and must be properly prosecuted.”
While Lewin, Vogelstein, and Lerman have led the effort to have police reports filed and argued for prosecution, numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have voiced support for the idea. Just days after the disruption, the Zionist Organization of America’s legal department sent a letter to UCLA insisting that a violation of state criminal law was clear.
If prosecutions and convictions result from the May 17 UCLA event shut-down disruption, it is expected to help define the criminal limits of such disruptions at campuses across the nation.