Ten students from the University of California, Irvine and Riverside went on trial this week on misdemeanor charges that they orchestrated a systematic disruption of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's February 2010 speech at the Irvine campus.
In opening statements, Orange County Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner rejected free speech arguments offered by the defense. "They didn't want to have an exchange of ideas to see who was telling the truth and who was not," Wagner said. "What their intention was, make no mistake, was to shut him down."
He pointed to emails from Muslim Student Union leaders with extensive plans to disrupt the talk. The students followed that plan closely, reciting their scripted lines before campus police escorted them out.
By their actions, Wagner said, Oren's right to free speech was hindered.
Defense attorneys insisted that the students stayed within the law while expressing their political views. "Each statement is for roughly five seconds. Some of the longest ones go 8 seconds — no more," said Dan Mayfield, who represents two of the defendants. "The evidence will show the interruption by the defendants — all of them together— lasts roughly a minute."
The prosecution itself infringes on the students rights, defense attorneys argued.
UCI claims it punished the students involved as well as the MSU chapter. The MSU was officially suspended for one quarter, which was reduced from the original year-long punishment recommended by a school investigation. MSU functions continued during the suspension but were sponsored by other campus groups. Student privacy laws prohibit the school from disclosing punishment meted out to the individual students.
The case has become a lightning rod for Muslim activists. The students are being singled out for prosecution "because they were protesting the activities of [Oren's] country, and also because the young men were all Muslims and because perhaps those behind the Prosecution thought that they could get away with it because of the rampant Islamophobia in this country," said Ameena Qazi, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Los Angeles chapter.
If convicted, the students could be fined and face up to six months in jail.