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Irvine 11: Arguments Due In Muslim Students' Speech Case

Irvine 11

AMY TAXIN   09/19/11 10:29 PM ET   AP

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Ten Muslim students broke the law by shouting down a speech by an Israeli diplomat at the University of California, Irvine in a carefully drafted and executed plan that flouted repeated calls to behave by campus officials, a prosecutor said Monday.

Defense attorneys countered that students acted within the law when they stood up, one by one, and read from pre-scripted statements and never intended to halt Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking about U.S.-Israel relations.

Attorneys delivered closing arguments in the case that has stoked a spirited debate about free speech not just in the courtroom but in the affluent suburban community south of Los Angeles.

Many of the facts of the case are not in dispute: The students carefully planned their February 2010 protest and were escorted out by security officials.

Jurors in the case will be asked to decide whether students broke the law or were exercising a right to demonstrate freely.

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

The case also raised questions about prosecutorial discretion, with some members of the public calling the trial a waste of taxpayers' money. Other community members have said the defendants were being singled out because they are Muslim.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Dan Wagner told jurors the students acted as censors to block the free flow of ideas and infringed on the rights of 700 people who had gone to the campus that evening to hear Oren. He said emails among members of the Muslim Student Union showed students were aware they could be arrested before the protest.

"The right to free speech is not absolute," Wagner said before a packed courtroom of more than 180 people in Orange County, with more observers waiting outside. "If hecklers' vetoes were allowed, then nobody, nobody, none of us would have the right to free speech."

Defense attorney Reem Salahi said the students followed a series of protests at UC Irvine and elsewhere during which demonstrators shouted during lectures but weren't arrested or sanctioned.

In this case, UC Irvine officials expressed their displeasure with students' actions during the demonstration but didn't give hard rules on what was or wasn't permitted, she said.

"This is merely an admonition to be polite," she said. "But in America, we don't prosecute people for being impolite."

Salahi – who represents two of the defendants – said students never intended to stop Oren from speaking but instead wanted to express their views – perhaps unpopular that evening – on the Israeli government's actions in Gaza.

On Monday, Wagner and defense attorneys also showed dueling pie charts breaking down how much time the students demonstrated, how much time their supporters cheered, and how much time Oren spoke in an effort to prove whether the meeting suffered a significant disruption.

Near the end of her argument, Salahi said she wanted to share a personal story related to the trial but Wagner objected and Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson said she couldn't proceed.

She paused for a moment then told the jury, "I can't tell you the story – I got shut down," to thunderous applause from the courtroom.

That brought an admonition Wilson, who said he would clear the courtroom if there was another outburst from the public.

Defense attorneys will continue their arguments Tuesday.

In 2010, the students were initially cited, released and disciplined at UC Irvine, which revoked the Muslim Student Union's charter for a quarter and placed it on two years of probation.

Nearly a year later, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed criminal charges against 11 students. The move prompted an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of Jewish, Muslim and campus groups.

The filing also sparked a media frenzy, and Wilson eventually issued a gag order to prevent prosecutors and defense attorneys from arguing the case outside the courtroom. The charges against one defendant were later dropped.

Many of the students have since graduated from UC Irvine and the nearby University of California, Riverside.

On Monday, Wagner showed video clips of university officials pleading with demonstrators to behave and respect academic freedom. He also showed numerous emails among members of the Muslim Student Union planning the disruption and calculating who was willing to get arrested.

The correspondence, Wagner said, reveals students knew the risk of their actions and later tried to cover up that the organization was involved in the protest.

"It was always a plan to break the rules," he said.

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Filed by Leah Finnegan  |