Closing arguments began today in the Irvine 11 free speech trial in the Orange County Superior Courthouse, with the prosecution holding tight to its assertion that the students of UC Irvine and UC Riverside “conspired” to break the law when they nonviolently protested during a speech of an Israeli official in February 2010, and the defense working hard to rebut those claims while bringing politics and context of the protest into the case.
Today, hundreds of supporters of the Irvine 11 packed the courtroom, eager to hear the final statements made by both sides before the jury deliberates on a verdict.
Dan Wagner, attorney for the DA’s prosecution team, argued for nearly two hours in the morning that the students employed a “heckler’s veto” during Oren’s speech, willfully and knowingly attempting to “shut down” the event and therefore violating a California penal code regarding the disturbance of a public meeting. The prosecution alleges that the students knew that they could be arrested and prosecuted, and claimed that they “robbed [Michael Oren] of his free speech rights.”
Michael Oren (ne Bornstein), the New York-born Israeli ambassador to the US, was on a speaking tour defending Israeli policy — notably Israel’s attacks on the Gaza strip in the winter of 2008-09 which killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians. Oren was also a paratrooper in the 1982 Israeli war on Lebanon, a military spokesman for Israel’s 2006 attacks on Lebanon, and was a public relations officer for the 2008-09 assault on Gaza.
Wagner asserted that the students broke the implicit rules of “civility” and the explicit “rules of engagement” during their protest. “This freedom [of speech] has limits,” he stated. Addressing the defendants, he said, “You didn’t behave yourselves. The entire evening was wasted for the 700 people who came to see Oren speak.” He then accused the Irvine 11 of “censoring” Oren. He also frequently compared the cheering and audience support of the students who stood up and protested during Oren’s speech of acting like it was “a football game.”
“Do your thing outside,” Wagner continued. “Have a protest outside the ballroom. Have a silent protest. Hold your own event. Don’t deny the audience the chance to hear the speaker.”
Referring to the fact that Oren had VIP tickets to an LA Lakers game the night of his speech — forcing him to leave the event before the planned ending time that was published on the event flier regardless of whether a protest happened or not — Wagner remarked, “He went to a Lakers game, big whoop! Oren is entitled to stick to his own schedule. Maybe it was important for his security [detail] to do so.”
Finally, Wagner claimed that the Irvine 11 were “willing to go all the way” — meaning risking arrest and jail time — in order to “shut down” the event.
A case which could affect every American citizen’s rights
In a press conference held outside the courthouse following Wagner’s closing arguments, interfaith and activist leaders said that the students have been selectively prosecuted by the Orange County DA’s office, which has spent nearly 18 months and enormous amounts of effort and money to build their case.
Saadia Khan, Civic Outreach Coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council stated that “the Orange County DA’s core decision to prosecute these bright young students for expressing their freedom of speech and peaceful protesting is already setting an unhealthy precedent for college campuses nationwide.”
Estee Chandler of Jewish Voice for Peace added, “the bravery, the solidarity and the desire to stand up and speak out, and defend their rights in a case which could affect every American citizen’s right to free speech and political protest by these ten young Muslim students gives me hope for our future.”
John Conrad, director of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Riverside, said that “this is a question of a people without a voice. And those people are the Palestinians. And for the last forty years at least, their voice has been suppressed, their pain has not been heard, and there is no avenue for them to get up in front of a crowd of 700 people and talk to folks about the level of injustice that they suffer every day, at checkpoints … It’s about a people oppressed, it’s about the United States’ responsibility to be fair and just to both peoples, and it’s about its obvious, patent bias toward the state of Israel.”
When the trial resumed, it was the defense’s turn to rebut the prosecution’s arguments and plead their clients’ case to the jury. Defense attorneys Dan Mayfield and Reem Salahi pressed the point that the students’ disruptions of Oren’s speech only constituted a fraction of the time — they said 2 percent — of the total event’s span. They added that the university administration’s constant berating of the students and their supporters constituted almost 8 total minutes of disruption, whereas the total time that was taken up by the students’ protests tallied just over one full minute. Oren was able to finish his speech with thirteen minutes to spare before the scheduled, pre-determined time that was posted on the event flier — and he may have chosen to leave early and forgo a question and answer period so that he could attend the basketball game.
“If the Q&A was so important [to the speaker and to the prosecution],” Salahi asked, “why was it not advertised on the program flier? … Why was there no Q&A? Was it because of my clients, or was it because of the Lakers?”
In her opening statements, Salahi illustrated the political nature of this protest. “This is a story about impassioned students at a university, about the First Amendment and democracy, and about the right to express dissent.” She added that her clients knew of Oren’s role in Lebanon and Gaza, and decided to put on a protest in the spirit of other protests that had happened elsewhere around the country where other Israeli officials were met with dissent and direct, nonviolent action — and where no one else was arrested or prosecuted.
She said that the students simply wanted to send Oren a message. “Their protest was not about ‘hooting and hollering’ as the government says. Rather, it was about their deeply-held beliefs for peace. Getting arrested was not part of their plan.”
In emphasizing the point that UCI’s administration made no room for protest to take place, Salahi reiterated a point made earlier by her defense co-counsel that the jury has to abide by: Jury instructions clearly state that “You may not find a defendant guilty of this crime based on a violation of any explicit rule(s) governing the meeting if you find that such rule(s) did not provide a reasonable opportunity for protest at the meeting.”
Salahi stated that the administration made it clear that no disruption would be tolerated, even though they knew that the speaker was controversial. “[The UCI administration’s] admonition was for people to be polite … and we don’t prosecute people for being impolite.”
However, she stated that there was a plan in place for the protest — and that plan was conspired by the security officers at the event, who had already set up an action plan to arrest people — including stashing a number of pair of metal handcuffs in a room that was set up to process protesters.
“[The students] expressed their statements of protest,” she said. As she attempted to close by telling the jury a personal story of her cousin in Syria, Dan Wagner interrupted her and objected on the grounds that it was not relevant. The judge sustained the objection, and Salahi was cut short. “I can’t finish my story,” she said; and laughed, “I guess I just got shut down.”
The Irvine 11 trial resumes on Tuesday, with the defense team wrapping up their closing arguments before the jury finally deliberates on a verdict. Stay tuned to The Electronic Intifada, and follow us as we live tweet from the courtroom at @intifadaLive.