SANTA ANA, Calif. – The Muslim students stood up to shout last year at the Israeli ambassador, halting for 20 minutes his talk on U.S.-Israel relations to a California university audience — a protest that left several students facing charges and has evolved into a broader legal tussle over whose free-speech rights were violated.
Opening statements were scheduled Wednesday in the trial of 10 students on misdemeanor charges of conspiring to disturb a meeting and disturbing a meeting for interrupting Ambassador Michael Oren's speech at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010.
Students claim they had a right to protest. But Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas contends that right ended when it infringed on the wishes of hundreds of members of the public who had come to hear Oren.
The case has generated an impassioned debate about free speech and raised questions about prosecutorial discretion as some members of the public — including some who disapproved of the Muslim students' actions — say student protests are nothing new and the case is a colossal waste of taxpayers' money.
The students, many who have since graduated from college, say they are being singled out because they are Muslim and that similar protests on other college campuses didn't elicit criminal charges.
"This is selective punishment," said Kifah Shah, a spokeswoman for a campaign of community activists in support of the defendants. "At this point, it is not just about these 10 students anymore. It is about every single one of us and about whether our right to freedom of speech is going to be upheld."
That isn't how everyone sees it. Michael Shapiro, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said charging the students with conspiracy isn't necessary to uphold free speech rights in this case since campus authorities already did so by enabling Oren to give his talk and by disciplining students who participated in the outburst.
But the students don't have a constitutional right to shout down a speaker, he said.
"It is just maddening and outrageous that they think they have a free speech right to shut everybody else up," Shapiro said. "That's not the way the First Amendment works."
Prosecutors have accused members of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine of plotting to disrupt the upcoming speech six days before the talk entitled "U.S. Israel Relations from a Political and Personal Perspective." Several hundred people attended the event on the sprawling suburban campus 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles that evening, including students and community members.
Authorities say the students stood up one by one and shouted out phrases such as "you are a war criminal" and "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech." The students were cited and released and disciplined at the university, which revoked the Muslim Student Union's charter for a quarter during the academic year and placed it on two years of probation.
Nearly a year later, Rackauckas filed criminal charges against 11 students, which prompted an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of Jewish, Muslim and campus groups.
The incident also sparked a media frenzy and Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson eventually issued a gag order to prevent prosecutors and defense attorneys from arguing the case outside the courtroom.
Since then, the charges against one defendant were dropped, but 10 students — some who attended UC Irvine and others who attended the nearby University of California, Riverside — still face prosecution.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. If convicted, the students could face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines to up to a year in jail.
The case has split residents of affluent Orange County, a traditionally Republican-stronghold that is home to sizable Jewish and Muslim populations. Residents have written vociferous letters to the editor of the local newspaper, the Orange County Register, on both sides of the debate.
Those who attended Oren's speech that evening also left with different views about how the incident should be handled.
Ron Ovadia, a 61-year-old advertising consultant, said he thought the protest was inappropriate but that didn't make it a criminal act. Ovadia, who is Jewish, said he was disciplined in college when he shouted out a speaker during a 1968 anti-war protest — but wasn't prosecuted.
"I just personally think that if these were a bunch of white, middle class students from Newport Beach and Irvine they would have had their hand slapped and that would be the end of it," Ovadia said. "I certainly don't condone what they did. I just thought it was handled and we need to move on."
Jesse Rosenblum, president of the Zionist Organization of America's Orange County chapter, said the students should have backed down once authorities told them they could face criminal charges. That's what happened during protests he recalled witnessing during his days as a college administrator in New Jersey, said the 71-year-old, who supports Rackauckas' position.
"You're sending a message, an important message of what is permissible and what is not permissible in our democracy and that must occur," Rosenblum said. "It's not just about these students — it is about any group who feels their voice is so important they have to drown out every other voice."