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Sound & fury

Free Speech | Disrupters of an Israeli ambassador's speech say ruling against them violates free speech

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

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: On Sept. 23, 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.

The defendants continue to proclaim their innocence and accuse the Orange County District Attorney's Office of racism and religious bias. A gag order prevented the D.A.'s office from answering these allegations during the trial, but on Sept. 28, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas released emails, documents, and videos that were used in the trial-an effort to prove to the public that criminal charges were justified.

"The defendants have shown no remorse. They continue to claim they were wrongfully convicted," District Attorney Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder told me. "And many newspapers, without knowing all the facts, have joined in their ridiculous sentiment even though they actually made motions in court saying this is a biased prosecution and they lost. They lost all those motions."

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Schroeder described an astonished crowd when the verdict was read. Several people gasped while more than two dozen of the approximately 150 spectators stormed out of the room. She said one of the supporters pointed at a uniformed deputy sheriff guarding the court and shouted, "You are a tool of Israel." Other supporters tried to intimidate the jurors by illegally taking video and pictures of them leaving the courthouse. Investigators were unable to catch those supporters.

The students-eight from UC-Irvine 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 any involvement in the disruptions, but an investigation uncovered email proof of a meticulously planned scheme (see "'We will fight you,'" Nov. 20, 2010). 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 ambassador's speech was cut short by 30 minutes, disappointing a crowd of 700 people. The group became known as the "Irvine 11," although charges were dropped against one of the students pending 40 hours of community service.

During the trial, which began on Sept. 7, 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," Herzallah said. "Apparently the district attorney of Orange County threw the American Constitution in the trash."

Schroeder disagrees, saying others protested the ambassador's speech but did so legally and were not prosecuted. "When you look at the emails, they're very clear not only that they decided who gets to speak and who doesn't get to speak, they also decided that Ambassador Oren should not get to speak because he's an Israeli," Schroeder explained. "That's pretty anti-Semitic. And not only were they going to do this at UCI, they were going to do it all over the country."

The students were sentenced to three years of informal probation and 56 hours of community service to be completed by Jan. 21. Attorneys for the students plan to appeal, and Schroeder said the defendants' supporters are creating an anti-district attorney website and Facebook page. "If you dare to disagree with them then you're anti-Muslim when in fact it has nothing to do with their religion. It has to do with the fact that they committed a crime."

Sidewalks vs. shout downs

On the day the "Irvine 11" verdict was announced, the 16th annual Arab American Festival was just beginning in Garden Grove, Calif., five miles from the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana. On a public street corner near the entrance to the festival, dozens of protesters were blowing horns and hollering at a group from Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment who were holding a sign the protesters found offensive.

"Muhammad is a child molester," the sign proclaimed, alluding to Muhammad's marriage to 6-year-old Aisha (some traditions claim she was 9). Many were angered and some suggested the group should not be allowed at the festival. One protester told me over the noise of the crowd, "What do you mean a public sidewalk? You cannot say Muhammad is like this. Muhammad is like that. You can say Jesus is the Son of God-that is your opinion. But you cannot say a bad thing about another prophet! That's the bottom line."

Across the street, Pastor George Saieg from Arabic Christian Perspectives and his team were handing out drinks and Christian pamphlets to festival-goers. He disagrees with Concerned Citizen's tactics but affirms their right to be there: "Some Muslims try to compare this to the situation with Irvine, saying, 'Why are police just watching here and allowing this guy to hold a sign on a public sidewalk saying Muhammad is a child molester while they stopped us in Irvine to say our opinion inside when the ambassador of Israel was there?' My response to them is this is a public sidewalk. But [at UCI] it was a lawful assembly," Saieg said. "You cannot just come in and shout down a private event."

Saieg is well versed in First Amendment rights. He recently won an appellate court decision affirming his right to hand out Christian literature at a similar event in Dearborn, Mich., last year. The city had banned Saieg and other Christian groups from public sidewalks near the festival, arresting those who violated the ban (see "Smelting pot," July 17, 2010). Saieg sued Dearborn and lost in Federal Court, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that his First Amendment rights were violated.

Saieg, who was born and raised in Sudan and now calls California home, says this is a victory for religious freedom: "If they stop us from preaching the gospel, Muslims also will be stopped from preaching their message and I think they should recommend that we continue our freedom of speech in this way."

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