SANTA ANA - Jury deliberations begin this morning in the case of 10 students charged with misdemeanors stemming from an orchestrated series of interruptions during a February 2010 speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine.
In closing arguments, attorneys on both sides claimed the case is about preserving First Amendment rights. Defense attorneys say their clients exercised their rights to protest. But in doing so, prosecutors say, they violated Oren's right to be heard.
The 10 defendants are among 11 people arrested during the speech. The disruptions were spelled out in great detail by emails distributed by UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union (MSU). They stood up and shouted accusations of murder and genocide at the ambassador, before being escorted out by police. A large group of cheering pro-Palestinian supporters staged a walkout shortly after the students' disruption.
The students' actions violated well-known norms and standards for such a gathering, Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said in closing arguments. Multiple admonitions by the professor who organized the event and the university chancellor did not stop the protest, nor did the arrest of each demonstrator. The students believed that their right to disrupt gave them a 'Heckler's Veto' over the ambassador's right to free speech, he said.
Although 10 students disrupted the ambassador, the only limitation to their interruption was a lack of more students willing "to go all the way," Wagner said.
This was not about the students' right to free speech, Wagner said, but rather an attempt to "shut down" the opinions of someone with whom they disagreed.
Defense arguments highlighted the students' right to protest and technical challenges to the prosecution's case. The students' actions were heroic, said attorney Lisa Holder, and the university administration and police had no right to stop their legitimate form of protest.
"Rude in not unlawful, peaceful protest is not unlawful," added defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman.
The defendants supporters cheered many of the arguments, prompted Judge Peter Wilson to threaten to clear the courtroom. But no one was forced to leave.