An Orange County jury late this morning found 10 students known as the 'Irvine 11' guilty on two misdemeanor counts, one of conspiracy and one of disturbing a meeting, for their interruption of a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine last year. Prosecutors had argued that the students, from UCI and UC Riverside, "shut down" the ambassador with their repeated heckling; the defense argued that the students were exercising their right to free speech.
The free speech component has made the case national news, but there have also been allegations of ethnic and religious bias, with some pointing to a climate of discrimination against Muslims that in the last year has prompted actions ranging from protests against the building of mosques to hate crimes directed at people perceived to be Muslims.
This week, the Orange County Register ran an opinion piece from the Council on American-Islamic Relations' executive director and staff attorney Ameena Mirza Qazi titled "Irvine 11’s' speech infringed because they’re Muslim."
Qazi pointed out how hecklers who interrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year in New Orleans weren't subject to the same punishment, writing:
It is quite common for shouts, jeers, hooting, stand-ups, walk-outs and sit-downs to occur during political gatherings. In fact, a similar protest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu involving Jewish students occurred in the fall of 2010, and the protesters received not so much as a scolding.
The difference here, however, is that these Irvine 11 young men are Muslim, exercising their rights to critique inhumane Israeli policies in a growing anti-Muslim environment.
In the comments from around the world that have flooded Twitter since the verdict was announced, some of those voicing anger about it have said more or less the same.
There u have it, free speech applies to A.N.other except if yr Muslim. A travesty!
teaparty types can bring their guns to an Obama protest. the
#irvine11 though go to jail for bringing just their conscience.
Others, however, have pointed out that the circumstances of the speech played a part, among other things saying it was an invitation-only event, although it was open to UCI students. In a growing comment thread on the website for KPCC's AirTalk show, which featured a segment this morning on the trial, a listener named Brian posted:
Free speech is a fundamental right no doubt, but lets pull this issue apart. Regardless of what you think about this issue your right to free speech needs to be weighed against someone else right to free speech and someone else right to listen freely. When questions of the first amendment come into play you have to look at the forum.
Where was this protest being held? Was it a traditional public forum? A non-public forum? if it was a public forum was it an open public forum? layer that over this issue...this was a PRIVATE event a NON-PUBLIC event. Your fundamental right to free speech does not apply the same in non-public forums as it does say at a public park. These 11 chose to enter a non-public forum, disrupt the event, and are trying to usurp the first amendment protections to justify their illegal behavior.
Elicsmart had another take:
When is the last time a group college students were prosecuted and convicted by a court of law for disrupting a public speech? I have been to many public speeches that have been disrupted for a variety of reasons and I've never heard of anyone else being prosecuted.
I guess our first amendment rights don't allow us to criticize Israel.
Appearing as a guest on AirTalk today, Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said the incident should have been handled by the school instead of the courts, blaming "the politicized nature" of the conflict between Israel and Muslims over the issue of Palestine for why it went as far as it did.
Charges were filed against 11 students who participated in the protest, with the charges against one later dropped. A story posted on the KPCC website features a video of the heckling as it took place during Oren's February 2010 speech. From the story:
The students planned a protest mirroring one done at the University of Chicago in which students disrupted an appearance from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The students stood up, minutes apart from each other, and bellowed slogans at Oren such as "Michael Oren, you're a war criminal," followed by cheers from supporters. They capped it off with a loud, mass walkout of students.
The incident led to the temporary suspension of UCI's Muslim Student Union, which was involved in the protest.
Readers, what do you think?