Home The Washington Diplomat August 2011

Legal Battle over Campus Protest Raises Questions of Free Speech, Islamophobia

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They are known as the Irvine 11. They are group of young Muslim students now facing trial in Orange County, California, on misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace after disrupting a speech given by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at the University of California–Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010. They are also the lead actors in an incident that has escalated from a minor campus protest to a lengthy legal investigation, which along the way has raised questions regarding First Amendment rights, the specter of Islamophobia in a post-9/11 America, and accusations of judicial impropriety and prejudice within the local district attorney's office.

A quick Internet search for "Irvine 11 video" leads to YouTube, where one can witness the event that sparked it all. The video opens with Ambassador Oren being warmly introduced to the crowd by faculty and students; the protest commenced shortly after he began his speech. In a clearly orchestrated act of civil disobedience, the students took turns interrupting the ambassador with cries such as "You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide" and "Michael Oren, you are a war criminal." Despite repeated calls by university staff to show respect and allow a guest to speak, the protests went ahead, to the cheers of some in attendance and to the dismay of others. Taking turns to decry the speaker, the students then walked from their seats to be escorted from the room by campus police. They were subsequently arrested and later released. Of the 11 charged, eight are from UC Irvine while three are students with UC Riverside.

After a misdemeanor criminal investigation that lasted more than a year, their trial is finally set to start later this month despite accusations of legal impropriety and overreaction. The 11 students have been charged with conspiracy to disrupt a meeting and another count of disrupting a meeting, and if convicted face jail time (up to six months in prison), community service or parole. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said charges were filed because of an "organized attempt to squelch the speaker" and that the students "meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting."

Supporters of the students — including some Jewish groups and 100 campus faculty members — say they were exercising their right to free speech, that their protest was peaceful, that criminal prosecution is excessive, and that they're being unfairly targeted for being Muslim and for criticizing Israel.

Muslim Student Union

In the aftermath of the protest, the spotlight fell on the role of the Muslim Student Union, of which many of the protestors were members. Subsequently, the MSU was suspended from the university for a year (a rare instance in which the school recommended to ban a student group for something other than hazing or alcohol abuse), but the suspension was later reduced to three months.

To find out what motivated the protesters (their attorneys had advised against speaking to the press), The Washington Diplomat spoke with Marya Bangee, coordinator of Stand with the Eleven — a community group that has campaigned to have the charges against the students dropped. She says the students had a specific purpose in mind: to protest the devastating 22-day bombing campaign carried out by the Israeli government in the Gaza Strip that started on Dec. 27, 2008, in response to repeated rocket fire from the strip into nearby Israeli towns. A report by Amnesty International found that the bombing campaign killed some 1,400 Palestinians (13 Israelis died) and large swathes of Gaza had been razed to the ground.

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Photo: Stand with the Eleven
Reem Salahi, defense attorney for the so-called "Irvine 11," talks to reporters outside a courtroom in Orange County, California. Her clients, a group of Muslim students from the University of California-Irvine, are set to go to trial this month on misdemeanor charges after disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in a case that's generated a firestorm of controversy.

In Bangee's eyes, the ambassador's speech was part of a public relations exercise designed to burnish the image of the Israeli government after a storm of negative reaction following the Gaza military campaign. "The invasion and subsequent massacre of Gaza, it was kind of an obligation to the people who had been hurt and killed during the invasion," Bangee said. Also, some of the protestors were Palestinian and had an extra motivation. "They had a personal investment in speaking. They had family members in Gaza ... some of whom were killed," she added. In fact, one of the protestors had three family members killed during the bombardment. They were 13, 14, and 23 years old.

The Muslim Student Union also claims it has been unfairly singled out because of its religion. "The Muslim Student Union and their supporters said the reason the school is investigating them is that there is pressure from outside ... Jewish groups or Israel supporters from outside the school," said Mona Shadia, a reporter who has covered the Irvine 11 case extensively for the Los Angeles Times.

At the same time, some say the union isn't the innocent victim it's portrayed itself as, suggesting dubious connections. "One of the pro-Israel groups," Shadia noted, "made the allegation in the past that the Muslim Students Union had ... raised funds for Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel."

Perhaps most important though in terms of the legal case is that defendants are accused of meeting with other members of the Muslim Student Union six days before Oren's speech to discuss strategies to respond to the meeting — giving rise to the conspiracy charge that the disruption was planned ahead of time.

District Attorney Drama

While this case clearly touches on issues with global implications, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps the most intriguing element has been the local controversy surrounding the Orange County District Attorney office's handling of the case. Most recently, accusations of improper conduct and bias culminated in a judge removing the lead investigator and his three deputies from the case over the unauthorized use of privileged documents.

Shadia described how in the course of their investigations, the district attorney subpoenaed emails between the students and the Muslim Student Union pertaining to the protest — including around 20,000 privileged documents between the students and their lawyer. One of those emails was used to bring new charges against one student. The defense successfully argued these communications were subject to client-attorney privilege, and on July 1, Orange County District Judge Peter Wilson barred lead investigator Paul Kelly and three assistant district attorneys from the case. It was a legal victory for the defense, although they were pushing to have the entire DA's office kicked off the case, which Wilson declined to do. He did order prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any evidence used at the trial was not illegally obtained.

An update on the Stand with the Eleven website in May highlighted further possibility of bias within the district attorney's office. "Members of the OC DA, including the head district attorney Tony Rackauckas and his chief of staff, Susan Schroeder, have compared the alleged conduct of the Irvine 11 to the Ku Klux Klan protesting Martin Luther King Jr. In a video interview, Ms. Schroeder also insinuated that the Irvine 11 are anti-Semitic."

Another factor that has surprised some observers is the district attorney's decision to pursue the case with such zeal. Bangee, a key supporter of the Irvine 11, highlighted a case whereby President Obama was heckled by anti-abortion protestors while giving a speech at the University of Notre Dame, but no charges were brought against the hecklers.

Similarly, John L. Esposito, founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, wrote in a June 16 Huffington Post article that "he can think of no place where freedom of speech and dissent has been, and continues to be, more important than university and college campuses."

"When College Republicans interrupted Muslim speaker Amir Abdel Malik at UCI, the protest was so overwhelming, UCI's College Republicans literally shut the speaker down, as similar protestors have done to other Muslim speakers at UCI," he pointed out. "They had large, premade signs, went on stage, surrounded the speaker, took the speaker's microphone and shut down the meeting. Did the UCI administration in this case and others move quickly to punish these disruptors, as they have in the Irvine 11 case? Were they accused of a conspiracy to disrupt? On the contrary, no one was prosecuted for this far more offensive conduct."

Even some of the UC Irvine faculty such as law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky who criticized the protest have said that university discipline was enough and that the incident didn't warrant criminal charges.

As such, the students suspect that prejudice against Muslims and political grand standing may be the reasons the district attorney convened a grand jury and assigned top investigators to the case. "This grand jury cost around a hundred grand," Bangee said, noting that "the editorial board of the LA Times came out and said this is an example of the Orange County DA pandering to the right-wing conservative community in Orange County because he is up for election this year."

Orange County Tensions

The case has also thrown an unsavory light on possible cultural tensions in Orange County, which now has a significant Muslim population in what has traditionally been a bastion of white conservatives. "Irvine has big Muslim community and a big mosque. It is a very diverse community. Anaheim has a large Arab community. There are a lot of Palestinians in Orange County," said reporter Shadia. And these demographic changes have brought with them controversies that some local politicians have been quick to exploit.

One incident that has lodged in the minds of many Muslims residents was a protest outside a charity event organized by the Islamic Circle of North America in the city of Yorba Linda north of Irvine. In an ironic parallel with the Irvine 11 case, Muslim parents and their young children were heckled entering the building by an emotional crowd intent on sending a message.

"Outside of this fundraiser dozens of people showed up waving American flags shouting, 'Go back home' and intimidated children. There is a level of Islamophobia in Orange County," said Bangee.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) made a particular note of the presence of local politicians such as Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Councilwoman Deborah Pauly who peppered their speeches with some incendiary language. Pauly made her view of the fundraiser very clear: "What's going on over there right now, make no bones about it, that is pure unadulterated evil," she charged. "I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in Paradise."

The Politics of Protest

The Irvine 11 case is set to go to trial in August and both the defense and the prosecution will argue that this is a matter of First Amendment rights — the right to free speech. The district attorney is arguing that the ambassador's right to free speech was impeded by the students. Ameena Mirza Qazi, staff attorney and deputy executive director at CAIR-Greater Los Angeles Area, counters that the students were exercising their right to use the First Amendment to craft their own protest, which was nonviolent.

"Each of the Irvine 11 students merely used his First Amendment right to briefly and peacefully challenge the representative of a foreign government involved in egregious human rights violations. The Israeli ambassador was able to finish his speech, despite the brief interruptions," she said.

When contacted, the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the case. A press officer said it would be unlikely that the embassy would comment on an ongoing legal matter.

Norman G. Finkelstein, a political scientist whose latest book is "This Time We Went Too Far" on the Gaza war, and no stranger to controversy himself, believes the Irvine 11 case is not simply a "free speech" issue for the university. Finkelstein — an outspoken critic of the Israeli government who often faces vociferous opposition while speaking on university campuses and was previously invited to speak at UC Irvine by the Muslim Student Union — believes the way a university welcomes a guest speaker is of great significance.

Citing the effusive welcome given to Ambassador Oren at UC Irvine, Finkelstein insisted that university authorities had in fact "taken sides" on the controversial issue of the Gaza bombing campaign. "The university hardly acquitted itself like angels," he said. "They took a stand. It was not about freedom of speech; they also took a political position."

Referring to the manner in which the students had conducted their protest, he said, "They did it with honesty and integrity."

However, Finkelstein insisted that he did not agree with the tactics of interrupting the ambassador. "I did not agree with what they did with Michael Oren," he said. "If we used [the students'] tactics, I wouldn't be able to speak anywhere."


About the Author

Raymond Barrett, author of "Dubai Dreams: Inside the Kingdom of Bling," is an Irish writer and journalist.

Last Edited on June 19, 2014