One hundred faculty members at UC Irvine signed a letter last week asking Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to drop the charges against 11 Muslim students, 8 from UC Irvine and 3 from UC Riverside, who last year disrupted a speech on campus by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. On February 4, the DA’s office announced that it was charging each student with “one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of disturbance of a meeting.”
According to the District Attorney, the students planned the disruption several days in advance. At the event, on Feb. 10, 2010, the first student to stand up and interrupt Oren’s speech allegedly said, “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech.” Another defendant allegedly said, “Michael Oren you are a war criminal,” while another said, “You sir are an accomplice to genocide.”
“This case is being filed because there was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI,” Rackauckas said in a statement announcing the charges. “These defendants meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting. This is a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution.”
In their letter, the faculty members countered that the students have already been sufficiently disciplined by the university. In addition to individual punishments, the Muslim Student Union was suspended from being a student organization for an academic quarter.
“The use of the criminal justice system will be detrimental to our campus as it inherently will be divisive and risk undoing the healing process which has occurred over the last year,” the letter reads. “It also sets a dangerous precedent for the use of the criminal law against non-violent protests on campus.”
The letter’s signatories include five deans and 14 Chancellor’s Professors and Distinguished Professors.
In an interview with TPM, Susan Schroeder, the DA’s chief of staff, emphasized that the students are not being prosecuted for protesting.
“Protesting is legal,” she said.
Schroeder called the students’ actions “an organized effort, days prior to the event, to shut down the speech.” As a result, Schroeder said, the students deprived the speaker and the audience of their first amendment rights, “and that’s against the law.” As examples of what the students could have done to protest the speech without breaking the law, Schroeder suggested they could have handed out leaflets, worn t-shirts or asked hostile questions during a Q & A section.
Schroeder also pointed out that the UC Irvine police made the arrests the night of Oren’s speech, and brought the case to the DA’s office. As a result, the office had a duty to evaluate whether the law was broken. “We just want people to accept responsibility for what they did,” she said.
That said, Schroeder also suggested that the consequences of not prosecuting were grave.
“If we don’t enforce this law we’re basically looking at anarchy and chaos,” Schroeder said. “It doesn’t matter, if we had a bunch of black students who shut down a bunch of Klu Klux Klan members at a place or vice versa.”
Schroeder said the DA’s office has not been in contact with the Embassy of Israel about the charges. When asked about the faculty letter, she said, “we cant allow public opinion to decide how we enforce the law.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, and one of the signers of the faculty letter, had a different take.
“I do not believe that criminal prosecution was warranted,” Chemerinsky wrote in an email to TPM. “The students behavior was wrong, but they have been punished by the university. There is no need for criminal sanctions. Rarely are students punished for protests if there is no damage to property or harm to persons or a serious threat of that.”
Hamza Siddiqui, a senior at UC Irvine and communications coordinator for the Muslim Student Union, praised the faculty for being “outspoken” on the charges.
“What I think the DA doing is punishing the students for something the university has already punished them for,” Siddiqui told TPM.
The fallout from the protest, according to Siddiqui, has had a “chilling effect” on the organization.
“People are afraid to even associate with us, because we were the organization that was suspended last quarter,” he said. “It made recruitment impossible.”
The students are scheduled to be arraigned on the charges on March 11.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com