Jury finds “Irvine 11” guilty of disturbing a public meeting and conspiracy

UC Muslim students guilty of disturbing speech

By VIK JOLLY and LARRY WELBORN / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

SANTA ANA – A jury Thursday found 10 Muslim university students guilty of
disrupting a speech by an Israeli diplomat at UC Irvine last year, in a case
that focused on free speech.

The six-man, six-woman jury found  the students guilty on all counts of
misdemeanor disturbing a public meeting and conspiracy in connection with the
Feb. 8, 2010, talk by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United
States.

The prosecution said the defendants used a “heckler’s veto” to thwart the
free speech rights of the speaker and others in the audience, while the defense
countered that what the protesters did was a lawful expression of their free
speech.

After months of pretrial motion, the trial lasted eight days, including about
two days spent on closing arguments by one prosecutor and six defense attorneys
earlier this week.

Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner told jurors the protesters’ actions
amounted to censorship when they planned to disrupt Oren and tried to cover it
up.

The right to free speech is not absolute, he said, and it does not include
canceling out the speech of others.

“If heckler’s veto was allowed, then no one would have the right to free
speech,” he said. “Freedom does not mean that no one can tell me what I can do.
That’s not freedom; that’s anarchy.”

The prosecutor urged jurors not to buy into the “alternate reality” created
by the defense, saying the defendants “convicted themselves.”

Defense attorneys for the students – seven from UC Irvine and three from UC
Riverside – said their clients intentionally disrupted the speech, but they
believed they were conducting a peaceful protest that did not break any
laws.

University officials’ zero tolerance for protest kept students from
exercising their rights to free speech, defense attorneys argued.

And, it they told jurors in Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson’s court
officials were prohibiting the content of the protesters’ statements at a
controversial political speech and not simply their conduct.

One of the elements the prosecution needed to prove for the jury to find the
students guilty was the students’ conduct and not the content of their message
disrupted the speaker.

“It was the message that was being targeted by administrators,” defense
attorney Lisa Holder said, “The university was prohibiting (the students’)
unpopular pro-Palestinian message.”

Both sides saw some of the same evidence presented at trial through different
lenses.

Defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman referred to the students as “heroes” who
acted in the “tradition of the finest American political activists.”

“On a college campus we’re going to let them criminalize dissent?” she said
in her closing arguments. “What are we doing?”

“There was a disruption,” Goodman acknowledged. “But it was not substantial
in the context of a political speech.”

Wagner argued it would not have mattered if the defendants had read from the
phone book or shouted “Mickey Mouse” during Oren speech, because it was their
conduct – and not the content – that forced Oren off the stage.

Defense attorneys, however, insisted that Oren left the podium on his
own.

The “intent of the conspiracy was to rob the speaker of his free speech
rights,” Wagner told jurors, adding that a planned Q&A would have given
students ample opportunity to have their say, not yelling out “something
non-responsive that violates the rules we all live with.”

When in an emailed “game plan” before the event students expressed
willingness to disrupt regardless of what the university officials and police
would do, that Wagner said was proof of conspiracy and the unlawfulness of the
plan.

Contact the writer: 714-834-3773 or vjolly@ocregister.com

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