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On 23 September, a group of students known as the “Irvine 11” were handed three years probation, as well as 56 hours of community service and fines for disrupting the 8 February speech of Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said that the students censored Ambassador Oren, and labelled their behaviour as “thuggery”. The decision was met with outrage from supporters, and at a town hall meeting held on 25 September, the students announced their plans to appeal the court’s decision, and one of the attorneys for the group, Jacqueline Goodman, vowed to continue fighting for the rights of the students, “even if it means going to the Supreme Court”.
In February 2010, a group of 11 students disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador to the United States. They shouted protest slogans for 20 minutes before they were arrested during Michael Oren’s hour-long speech at the University of California Irvine’s campus . Last week, ten of the students went on trial for misdemeanor charges of “conspiring to disturb a meeting” and “disturbing a meeting”, they face up to six months in prison.
Both parties believe that their First Amendment right to free speech was trampled on in the incident. Prosecutors said that the disruption prevented attendants from being able to listen to Oren. The student’s defence attorneys argue that the students were expressing their views, and their prosecution violates their right to freedom of expression. On Tuesday (13 Sept), the defence argued that Oren actually left the lecture because he’d been given VIP tickets to a Lakers game — he was pictured with Kobe Bryant — rather because he felt threatened by the protesting students as the prosecution claims.
With the frequency of student protests on university campuses, the severity of the potential sentence is mystifying. John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, pointed out the regularity of these kinds of protests on university campuses across the nation, including the UC Irvine campus, where a Muslim speaker was kept from speaking back in 2001. Others have pointed out the waste of taxpayer’s money, especially after the university already disciplined the students, handing them 100 hours of community service, two years of probation, and a quarter-long suspension of the Muslim Students Association.
The authorities insist that the student’s religious beliefs have nothing to do with the case, but according to Dan Mayfield, the attorney of one of the students, prosecutors were able to illegally obtain search warrants through focusing on the religion of the students, even going as far as calling the case the “UCI Muslim case”. As a part of the jury selection process, potential jurors were required to fill out an eight-page questionnaire, which asked questions about their views on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, as well as whether or not they “harbour negative feelings towards Muslims”.
Focusing on the role of Islam in the prosecution of the students could easily turn the conversation into one about freedom of religion, which is not necessarily interchangeable with freedom of expression. What must be protected is the right of students to express their views, regardless of what they might be.