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Four of the convicted students (AP/Photo by Damian Dovarganes)

Free speech defined

Courts | Ten Muslim college students are found guilty of disrupting a 2010 speech by the Israeli ambassador

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.-After more than two days of deliberation, an Orange County jury announced its verdict in a case that sparked national debate over free speech rights: All 10 Muslim students were found guilty of criminal charges for disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California in Irvine (UCI) last year.

Reaction to Friday's verdict was emotionally charged. Several people gasped while more than two-dozen of the approximately 150 spectators stormed out of the room. The students-seven from UCI and three from UC Riverside-were charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiring to disrupt the ambassador's Feb. 9, 2010, speech and a second count for the disruption.

The university's Muslim Student Union (MSU) originally denied planning the protests but a campus investigation uncovered proof of an orchestrated plan. During the speech, students took turns standing and shouting out scripted slogans that included, "You are a war criminal," and "Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech." After a warning by campus officials, 11 students were arrested one by one before the entire group walked out chanting in unison. The group became known as the "Irvine 11," although charges were dropped against one of the students pending 40 hours of community service.

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During the trial, which began on Sept. 11, attorneys for the students argued the importance of campus activism and claimed the defendants did not conspire to break the law, likening the disruptions to the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and other social activists.

Moutaz Herzallah, whose son is one of the defendants, moved to the United States from Bahrain several decades ago. "I decided to immigrate with my family to this country so we could have peace, freedom of speech, dignity, and honor," he said. "Apparently the district attorney of Orange County threw the American Constitution in the trash."

But prosecutors argued that the heckling violated the free speech rights of the speaker. Michael Shapiro, a law professor at the University of Southern California, concurred: It's just maddening and outrageous that they think they have a free speech right to shut everybody else up. That's not the way the First Amendment works."

The students, who faced up to a year in jail, were sentenced to fines, three years of probation, and 56 hours of community service to be completed by Jan. 21. Attorneys for the students plan to appeal. Following last year's arrests, UCI suspended the MSU for a quarter and placed the group on academic probation for two years.

Reaction rippled through the United States and abroad, with reporters from Al Jazeera, ABC News, and other media arriving in Orange County to cover the verdict. Some groups claimed the students were singled out for being Muslim and for protesting Israel's actions in Gaza. Others concluded that this case wasn't about religion or politics but rather the definition of free speech rights. Joe Wolf, a former UCI student who has frequently sparred with the MSU, said the "convicted students tried to illegally remove Ambassador Oren's First Amendment right to free speech when he was invited by the university to speak."

UCI's Muslim Student Union is accused of being one of the most virulent Muslim groups on American college campuses. Jewish groups have complained for years about what they view as hate speech: The Jewish Star of David being equated with swastikas, the Israeli flag flown with what appears to be blood stains on it, and speakers who have called Jews "the new Nazis."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

See Jill Nelson's report from the Nov. 20, 2010, issue of WORLD Magazine.

Listen to Jill Nelson discuss the case on The World and Everything in It.

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