UC Irvine Muslim students stand trial for speech disruption

Opening statements begin Wednesday in the trial of 11 Muslim students who disrupted a 2010 speech by the Israeli ambassador at the University of California, Irvine.

The Orange County District Attorney's Office has charged the students with misdemeanor charges of conspiring to disturb a meeting and disturbing a meeting in a case that has generated an impassioned debate about freedom of speech.

The students claim they had a right to protest when they stood up one by one during a speech at UC Irvine by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. The students delayed Oren's remarks by 20 minutes and prosecutors say they infringed on the rights of the audience who had come to hear Oren speak.

Orange County prosecutors have emails to bolster charges that these 11 students conspired to interrupt Israel's ambassador to the United States. One email talks about a "Chicago-style" protest to disrupt the event - and essentially silence Ambassador Michael Oren.

But don't equate the "Irvine 11" with the "Chicago Seven." The charges that Tom Hayden and other Vietnam War opponents faced 40 years ago were far more serious and their trial far more chaotic. The 11 students from UCI and UC Riverside face misdemeanor charges; even if they're convicted, jail seems unlikely.

Jurors filled out eight-page questionnaires that asked about their attitudes toward Muslims, UCI and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UCI law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky has said the students were wrong to interrupt, but he's said the prosecutors were also wrong when they filed criminal charges.

One student whose case was handled separately is doing time at a soup kitchen.

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

The Associated Press and KPCC wire services contributed to this story.