Eleven Muslim students pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges stemming from the disruption of a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at a California university.
The students were arraigned in Orange County Superior Court on misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting.
The case has stoked an intense debate about freedom of speech, and defense lawyers are seeking to have the have Orange County district attorney, Tony Rackauckas, removed from the prosecution.
The students were arrested on Feb. 8, 2010, at the University of California, Irvine, after shouting in protest at the speech on U.S.-Israeli security. The interruptions forced Ambassador Michael Oren to halt his remarks for 20 minutes.
Seven of the defendants entered their pleas in person. Four other pleas were entered by defense attorneys.
Muslim and civil rights advocates accuse prosecutors of discriminating against students exercising their right to dissent, just as many other college-goers do without punishment. They also say prosecutors have shown bias against Muslims in their internal communications and want the state attorney general to take over the case.
"This is not about the war in Gaza. This is about democracy right here," Jacqueline Goodman, an attorney representing two of the defendants, told reporters after the hearing.
Prosecutors contend the subject of the students' protest has nothing to do with the case and say defense attorneys have failed to prove they are biased or have a conflict of interest. Rather, they say the demonstration was a premeditated attempt to disrupt Oren's lecture that infringed on the rights of hundreds of people who had gathered on campus to hear him speak.
"They trampled on the other people's First Amendment rights," Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner told reporters.
On Friday, the prosecution filed a 32-page response to defense attorneys' efforts to have prosecutors pulled from the case. The filing includes copies of email communications from the head of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine in the days before Oren's speech outlining the so-called "game plan" in which "we will be staying for the majority of the program and disrupting it throughout the whole time."
Prosecutors also asked Judge Peter J. Wilson to unseal transcripts of the grand jury called to investigate the case - a move opposed by defendants.
Eight of the students attended UC Irvine and three were from the nearby campus of the University of California, Riverside. If convicted, they could face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines to up to a year in jail.
The next hearing in the case is set for May 13. A trial, which is expected to take two weeks, is scheduled to start Aug. 15.
© 2011 The Associated Press.