US students face jail time for disrupting Israeli official’s speech

Students hold a protest outside the offices of the district attorney of Orange County in solidarity with the Irvine 11, 1 February. (Craig Norris)

Eleven University of California students face criminal charges and possible jail terms for protesting and disrupting a speech by an Israeli official as the Orange County district attorney’s office engages in what one of the students’ attorneys calls “selective and discriminatory prosecution”

In a University of California at Irvine auditorium on 8 February 2010, ten student activists nonviolently confronted Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, with prepared statements of protest. They stood up and challenged Oren’s defense of Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in winter 2008-09 — during which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed — and the state’s ongoing human rights violations.

“Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” shouted one student before he was escorted out of the room. “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide,” another stood up and stated before he, too, was led away by police.

Arrests and investigations

After each one made a statement during Oren’s speech, the ten students were escorted out of the auditorium by police officers and then frisked, arrested and detained. Audience members in support of Oren jeered and yelled epithets at the protesting students as they delivered their messages.

Following the disruptions, Oren was able to continue his speech for approximately thirty minutes, while solidarity activists outside of the hall gathered in a peaceful demonstration. Another student who was part of the protest, but who did not stand and speak out inside the auditorium, was also detained and arrested by a police officer.

Now known as the Irvine 11, eight of the students arrested that day are from University of California at Irvine (UCI) and three are from the nearby University of California at Riverside.

In September 2010, after a lengthy process, the entire Muslim Student Union at UCI — of which many of the students arrested that day were members — was suspended by university officials for an academic quarter. This punishment is usually reserved for campus groups that are involved with alcohol violations or “hazing,” a series of physically abusive fraternity initiation practices.

Although the suspension has now ended, the Muslim Student Union was placed on a two-year probation, which means that the organization remains under acute scrutiny by the university administration.

But the punishment of the students’ protest has gone beyond the campus.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has initiated nearly a year’s worth of investigations against the students, including subpoenaing emails and going door-to-door to get testimonials from witnesses after Oren’s speech was disrupted.

Rackauckas recently empaneled a grand jury, and on 4 February, the district attorney’s office decided it would file misdemeanor criminal charges against the students who disrupted Oren’s speech. Rackauckas charged every student arrested that day with one count of both conspiracy to disturb a meeting and the disturbance of a meeting.

If the students are convicted, each could face up to six months in jail.

“A completely different situation”

Similar public disruptions of speeches given by Israeli officials have taken place across the United States and in Europe, on college campuses and in public venues, notably in Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and recently in Scotland. No known legal action has been taken against protesters in these cases.

Twenty-three-year-old Hamza Siddiqui, a political science major at UCI and a member of the Muslim Student Union, was inside the auditorium and supported the ten students who spoke out. He told The Electronic Intifada that the disruption of Oren’s speech was no different than any of the other similar protests.

“The type of protest these students chose to engage in is something that you see all across college campuses — it’s not unique to UCI by any means,” Siddiqui said. “Usually these protests end up being anecdotal. There’s no criminal record, and the school doesn’t punish anybody. It might get published in the school newspaper, and that’s it. But the situation at UCI was completely different.”

Siddiqui told The Electronic Intifada that instead of opening up a dialogue on campus about why the students disrupted Oren’s speech, all public discussion revolved around whether the students had the right to do it or not, and if they should suffer any consequences.

“It became something that was blown completely out of proportion. This is an unprecedented situation,” Siddiqui said.

Additionally, there seems to be a double standard being employed by the Orange County district attorney’s office in the way they have dealt with their interpretation of the law. For example, Siddiqui said that no criminal charges were filed against non-student community members who yelled hateful insults at Palestine solidarity activist and Nazi Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein last May, during her guest lecture at UCI.

“The police didn’t step up. Nothing happened. [Epstein] was in the middle of speaking when someone interrupted her speech, the same way students interrupted Michael Oren,” he said.

The Electronic Intifada contacted Susan Schroeder, spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney’s office, and asked her to explain the reason Rackauckas has led an aggressive prosecution campaign against the eleven Muslim students.

Schroeder said that the disruption of Oren’s speech was “a clear violation of the law” and that her office was just following legal protocol.

California’s penal code 403 states that “Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character, other than an assembly or meeting referred to in Section 302 of the Penal Code or Section 18340 of the Elections Code, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

However, since Oren was able to finish his speech, and since no other disruptions of Israeli officials’ speeches in California have led to criminal charges being brought against peaceful protesters, The Electronic Intifada asked Schroeder whether Orange County was selectively prosecuting the students under this law. She said that she couldn’t comment on any other jurisdiction, and reiterated that “when this case was submitted, we looked at the evidence and there are clear violations of the law.”

Schroeder added, “whether you like the speaker or not, it doesn’t matter … if the Ku Klux Klan disrupted a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., that would be a law violation.”

The New York Times published a similar assertion by Schroeder in a recent article on the Irvine 11 (“Charges Against Muslim Students Prompt Debate Over Free Speech,” 9 February 2011).

The Electronic Intifada asked Schroeder if she was concerned that she may be publicly — and repeatedly — comparing the young Muslim students to the KKK, and an Israeli official defending the killing of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza to Martin Luther King, Jr. She responded that if the KKK were speaking, and someone interrupted the speech, that would also be a law violation. “It doesn’t matter if the person who is speaking is offensive,” she stated. “It’s against the law to disrupt a lawful meeting.”

When asked if she was aware that Rackauckas’ prosecution effort could be seen as an unprecedented attack on a selective group of its constituents, she told this reporter that if Californians don’t like the law, “you can change the law.”

Selective, discriminatory prosecution

Reem Salahi, an attorney working with the legal team for the Irvine 11, said that the district attorney’s office is employing blatant double standards and selective, discriminatory prosecution in the case of the Irvine 11.

“I would like them to give us examples of other situations where students have stood up and protested and the DA went after them with criminal charges, even after knowing that very thorough [university] administrative proceedings had taken place,” Salahi told The Electronic Intifada.

If the DA’s office had prosecuted students like this before, she added, “it would have been one of their talking points. But it’s not.”

The Electronic Intifada asked Salahi whether Schroeder’s assertion that the Irvine 11 had committed crimes was correct.

“If the students had done property damage, if they had gotten violent, then I could see some sort of justification for involving the criminal justice system,” she responded. “But they did not commit violence, they did not commit property damage. These students stood up and said a few statements. They did anything but resist arrest — they walked over to the police and turned themselves in.”

Salahi stated that Schroeder and the district attorney’s office is trying to criminalize the students’ acts of dissent.

“I can’t say that [the DA’s actions are] politically-motivated,” Salahi said. “But it clearly appears that there’s something else going on. And they’re preying on some of the weakest elements of society. They’re preying on youth, on students and unfortunately, in a post-9/11 world, they’re preying on Muslims who at this point are seen as a suspect [group].”

Salahi also said that the district attorney’s office has spent so much time and money on the case that it’s hard to believe that this is a normal case that just “fell in their lap” — another talking point she said is regularly used by Schroeder and the district attorney’s office.

“But if that’s the case,” explained Salahi, “the obvious question to me is why did they undergo a year — 362 days — of investigating these protests? They empaneled a grand jury, subpoenaed students’ emails, sent out at least two investigators to get the testimonies of various individuals … why did they go to such great lengths to get all this information if the case essentially fell in their lap?”

“They created this case,” she added. “And they created it by going the extra mile in order to press these charges. This is a case of them wanting to make a point, whether it’s political or otherwise, in going after these students, who are the most vulnerable elements of our society.”

Salahi added that this kind of action by the district attorney’s office comes as the federal government expands its attacks against Palestine solidarity activists across the country. “These students were criticizing the Israeli government, and particularly what Israel had done in Gaza,” she said. “Is it a coincidence that these students got the book thrown at them? I don’t think so. I think [this is] just like what is happening in the Midwest,” Salahi added, referring to the 23 anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists in Minneapolis, Chicago and Michigan who have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury.

Global support of the Irvine 11

Following the decision by the district attorney to prosecute the Irvine 11, more than a hundred faculty members from UCI, including distinguished professors, chancellors and five departmental deans, wrote a letter to the district attorney’s office and demanded that the charges against the students be dropped.

Though the faculty letter states that “[t]he students were wrong to prevent a speaker invited to the campus from speaking and being heard … [a]nd the Muslim Student Union acted inappropriately in coordinating this and in misrepresenting its involvement to University officials,” it concludes that a criminal prosecution against the Irvine 11 “sets a dangerous precedent for the use of the criminal law against nonviolent protests on campus” (“100 UCI faculty call on DA to drop charges against students who disrupted Israeli ambassador’s talk,” 9 February 2011).

In addition to UCI faculty, prominent community leaders in Orange County have lent their support to the Irvine 11, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild.

Muslim, Christian and Jewish organizations, international social justice groups and the Palestine-based Right to Education campaign have also protested the Orange County district attorney’s actions through letters and online petitions.

Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rabbinical council drafted a letter of support that condemns the charges against the students, saying that the punishment “casts a chill on the right of people to protest in a democracy,” and asserts that there are “clear double standards for protest” in the US (“Jewish Group, Rabbis Condemn Charging of Muslim Students by Orange County DA, February 2011).

JVP added that the targeting of the Muslim students “is unacceptable and will only strengthen Islamophobia and attempts to stifle political speech in this country.”

Community activists have also held protests outside the offices of the Orange County district attorney in Santa Ana.

The support campaign for the Irvine 11 — Stand With the Eleven — has put up a petition on its website ( encouraging the public to express their condemnation of the Orange County district attorney’s prosecution of the students.

“We call on the OC district attorney to have a proper regard for justice and to not criminalize students whose only ‘crime’ was expressing their sincerely-held political views in the form of a protest,” the petition states.

Additionally, Stand With the Eleven stated in a 25 February press release that it is gearing up for a public press conference and town hall meeting on 5 March in Anaheim (“Press Release: Coalition Calls for End to Persecution of “Irvine 11  Students,” 25 February 2011). Supporters and community activists will call on the district attorney’s office to drop the charges against the Irvine 11.

On 11 March, the students will face arraignments.

Lasting effects

Meanwhile, as the Irvine 11 hope for the best but prepare for the worst, the lasting effects of the actions of the university and of the Orange County district attorney’s office may take a long time to mitigate.

Siddiqui told The Electronic Intifada that he organized a rally to support the Irvine 11 last month outside of the district attorney’s office, before the charges were officially filed. During a planning meeting for the rally, he said that student organizers were extremely concerned that they could be arrested, or that the university could punish them if they took part in the action.

“Students are really second-guessing their actions,” Siddiqui said. “The effect that it has is that people are afraid to do something that others might not like, even if it’s an appropriate action.”

“That’s not what democracy’s about,” he added. “Democracy’s about having the ability to dissent. It’s about having the ability to say, ‘This is not okay, and I’m going to stand up against this.’ And when people are afraid to practice their basic democratic freedoms, that’s a problem.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Al-Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine.