By AMY TAXIN, The Associated Press
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- A California jury found 10 Muslim students guilty Friday of disrupting the Israeli ambassador's university speech about U.S.-Israel relations, a case that stoked a debate about free speech.
The jury also convicted the students of conspiring to disrupt Ambassador Michael Oren's speech in February 2010 at the University of California, Irvine. They were charged with misdemeanor counts after standing up, one by one, and shouting prepared statements such as "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech."
The students will return back to court Friday in Orange County where they could be sentenced, said defense attorney Dan Stormer. He declined to comment until after the afternoon hearing. Prosecutors said they will comment on the case later.
About 150 people, including relatives and supporters of the students and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, attended the verdict. Some community members gasped and started crying when the verdict was read and about a dozen of them walked out.
The students showed little reaction but later huddled with their attorneys and shared hugs with family and friends.
Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California said he was shocked.
"This is yet another reaffirmation that Islamophobia is intensely and extensively alive and thriving in Orange County," he said. "I believe this will be used as precedent now to suppress speech and dissent throughout the country. This is the beginning of the death of democracy."
UC Irvine said in a statement that it supports free speech.
"We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view," said Rex Bossert, a university spokesman.
Prosecutors said the students broke the law by interrupting Oren's speech on U.S.-Israel relations and cutting short the program, despite calls to behave from campus officials. Defense attorneys argued the students had a right to protest.
Nearly 200 people packed the courtroom to hear closing arguments at the trial that some community members called a waste of taxpayers' money and an effort to single out the defendants because they are Muslim.
Prosecutor Dan Wagner told jurors the students acted as censors to block the free flow of ideas and infringed upon the rights of 700 people who had gone to the Irvine campus to hear Oren.
Wagner showed video footage of university officials pleading with students to behave, but they kept interrupting the lecture. Wagner also showed emails sent among members of UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union planning the disruption and calculating who was willing to get arrested.
Defense attorneys countered there were no hard rules for the speech, and the students might have been discourteous but didn't break the law.
Lawyer Reem Salahi, who represents two of the defendants, said the demonstration was modeled after a series of protests at UC Irvine and elsewhere in which students shouted at lecturers but weren't arrested.
She said the students never intended to halt Oren's speech entirely but wanted to express their views on the Israeli government's actions in Gaza.
During the case, attorneys showed dueling pie charts breaking down how much time the students demonstrated, how long their supporters cheered and how much time Oren spoke. The evidence was intended to show whether the meeting suffered a significant disruption.
Attorneys for the students – who attended UC Irvine and nearby University of California, Riverside – argued before the trial that charges should never have been filed and that the issue was already handled on campus.
In 2010, the students were 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.
Earlier this year, Rackauckas filed criminal charges against 11 students, prompting an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of Jewish, Muslim and campus groups. Charges against one defendant later were dropped.