In Southern California, 11 Muslim college students head to court Friday to face charges for disrupting a speech last year by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. The local prosecutor says the students at the University of California at Irvine had no right to disrupt the event. Supporters of the students say they’re being targeted for being vocal critics of Israel.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Southern California, 11 Muslim college students are heading to court tomorrow. They’re facing criminal charges for disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. The incident happened late last year on the campus of the University of California at Irvine. The local prosecutor says the students had no right to disrupt the event. Supporters say the students are being targeted for being vocal critics of Israel. NPR’s Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: The main walkway through the University of California Irvine is lined with students running booths for all kinds of causes.
Unidentified Woman: Help support breast cancer awareness.
KAHN: Missing from this gathering until lately has been the Muslim Student Union. The group has just finished a quarter-long suspension, a punishment imposed by the university after 11 Muslim students disrupted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech last year on campus.
Hamza Siddiqui says it has been hard to live down the stigma of being a suspended organization.
Mr. HAMZA SIDDIQUI (Student): People are afraid to wear their Muslim Student Union shirts. You know, they were afraid to like associate themselves with us, you know. And so that’s the first thing that really affected us.
KAHN: Siddiqui says the group was just regaining its footing when the local district attorney announced he was pressing criminal charges against the students, who’ve been dubbed the Irvine 11.
Mr. TONY RACKAUCKAS (Attorney): It’s a misdemeanor to interrupt and disrupt a lawful meeting.
KAHN: Orange County D.A. Tony�Rackauckas says the students unlawfully conspired to shut down the ambassador’s speech.
Mr. RACKAUCKAS: You have a First Amendment right to express yourself. They certainly had every right to demonstrate and to express themselves and to get their ideas across. But this went well beyond that.
KAHN: In a video of the speech posted on YouTube, the ambassador, speaking to a packed auditorium, is repeatedly shouted down by Muslim students.
Ambassador MICHAEL OREN (Israel): My prime minister, my foreign minister and the person who…
Unidentified Man: You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Ms. JACQUELINE GOODMAN (Attorney): What happened was there are 10 distinct momentary disruptions.
KAHN: Jacqueline Goodman is a lawyer for seven of the eleven students. She declined to make any of the students available for this story.
As she looks over the video of the ambassador’s speech, she says it’s obvious that the demonstration was peaceful. After making their statements, she says each protestor promptly surrendered to police waiting in the aisles.
Ms. GOODMAN: It’s difficult for me to believe that this prosecutor could see fit to expend tens of thousands of dollars and a year’s worth of resources on prosecuting a disturbance of the peace in an instance where nobody was hurt, nobody was threatened.
KAHN: Goodman says the prosecution’s motivation is clearly political, a charge D.A.�Rackauckas adamantly denies. For their part, Jewish groups on the U.C. Irvine campus don’t want to be drawn into the controversy. But Rabbi Aron�Hier, campus outreach director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says the Muslim students have yet to apologize and must be punished.
Rabbi ARON HIER (Simon Wiesenthal Center): If people are allowed to shut down and conspire to shut down free speech, then we’re not going to be able to exchange ideas in a free fashion.
KAHN: Many faculty at U.C. Irvine disagree. One hundred of them signed a petition asking the D.A. to drop the charges. They say the university suspension of the Muslim Student Union was punishment enough. Student Hamza Siddiqui says the D.A.’s prosecution sets a dangerous precedent. He asks what’s to stop him from prosecuting all groups he doesn’t agree with.
Mr. SIDDIQUI: It leaves barely any room for dissent. And what is democracy without dissent?
KAHN: If convicted, the students could be sentenced to as much as six months in jail.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News