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Muslim Students Protest Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador: Free Speech Or Criminal Act?

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AP File

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Prosecutors on Wednesday argued that 10 Muslim university students broke the law when they shouted down a speech by the Israeli ambassador on a Southern California campus in a case that has stoked an impassioned public debate about freedom of speech.

The basic facts of the case were laid out in opening statements before the jury and an audience of several dozen community members: A group of Muslim students carefully planned a protest and, one by one, stood up and shouted scripted statements at the ambassador at the University of California, Irvine in 2010.

Jurors will be asked to decide whether students' actions that night violated the law in a case where some community members have alleged that the defendants are being singled out because they are Muslim.

The case has also 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 waste of taxpayers' money.

The students face misdemeanor charges of conspiring to disrupt a meeting and disrupting a meeting. If convicted, they could face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines to up to a year in jail.

In opening statements Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner said emails from the leader of UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union show that students drafted a detailed game plan to disrupt Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren's talk on U.S.-Israel relations.

They followed the plan to the letter by reading scripted statements before being escorted out of the event by authorities, Wagner said.

The students later tried to make it appear as if each student acted on his own, when they had coordinated the demonstration at a publicized event attended by hundreds of students and community members, he said.

"What their intention was, make no mistake, was to shut him down," Wagner told the jury.

But defense attorneys said the students planned their protest within the boundaries of the law and their combined statements lasted no longer than five minutes.

They also noted that Oren was able to finish his speech and argued that delays in the event entitled "U.S. Israel Relations from a Political and Personal Perspective" stemmed from organizers' introductory remarks and a private reception that ran late.

"Each statement is for roughly five seconds. Some of the longest ones go 8 seconds – no more," Dan Mayfield, who represents two of the defendants, said in his opening statement. "The evidence will show the interruption by the defendants – all of them together_ lasts roughly a minute."

The students, many who have since graduated from college, 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.

Authorities say the students 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 filing sparked a media frenzy and Superior Court Judge Peter J. 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 have been dropped, but 10 students – some who attended UC Irvine and others who attended the nearby University of California, Riverside – still face prosecution.

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.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told reporters outside the courthouse on Wednesday that he believes the students are being singled out for protesting against the Israeli government's actions in Gaza, noting that President Barack Obama is frequently heckled by protesters who aren't criminally charged.

Moutaz Herzallah, whose son is one of the defendants, said he has never heard of American students being tried over protests.

"I decided to immigrate to this country with my family so we could have peace, freedom of speech, dignity and honor," said Herzallah, a Palestinian who came here from Bahrain several decades ago. "Apparently, the district attorney of Orange County threw the American Constitution in the trash."

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."

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