11 Muslim students protested the speech of Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren at a public university in Southern California.  They face criminal charges for their act of peaceful protest and civil disobedience.  This is their story.

The Facts.

February 8, 2010.  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was invited to speak at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine).  10 students, 7 from UC Irvine and 3 from UC Riverside, stood up individually and made statements of protest, disrupting Oren's address (video here).  The heckling students left the room after making their statements, cooperatively and voluntarily meeting the policemen who waited for them. At some point, the 11th student, also from UC Irvine, was singled out of the crowd of protestors who were walking out of the room during Oren's speech.  All 11 students were handcuffed, arrested, cited, and detained.

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The individuals then faced university disciplinary measures.  UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union (MSU) was also disciplined for its alleged participation in the protest, dealing with sanctions that resulted in a quarter long suspension of the organization and subsequent 2 year probation, which it continues to serve.

February 4, 2011.  California's Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charges the Irvine 11, as they have come to be known, with 2 misdemeanor counts each: a disruption of a meeting charge and a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor charge.

March 5, 2011.  The Irvine 11 campaign  hosted a town hall meeting, community forum and press conference (video here), in order to inform the community on developments of the case and to harness community support for the 11 students.

Their arraignment date is this Friday, March 11.

The Issue of Free Speech

The actions of the Irvine 11 quickly became controversial—with both enthusiastic support for and opposition against their actions.  Although the protestors aimed to voice their outrage to an Israeli state official at the Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people, the debate that sprung up was focused about the issue of free speech and method of protest used.  The content of what the Irvine 11 had said was quickly muted and smothered underneath the issue of upholding Constitutional 1st amendment rights, and this is where the current criminal prosecution stems from.

At the recent town hall meeting, Executive Director of CAIR-LA, Hussam Ayloush stated, “more important than free speech [with the Irvine 11] is the issue of courage, the courage to stand for your principles, and it is extremely important to recognize these students.  These young students did what many people, including governments and public officials, don't dare to do…at least these students have the guts, courage, and principles to stand up and say what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is wrong.”

The dialogue that developed about the Irvine 11, however, failed to recognize what the students really meant to accomplish.  The issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations was once again dodged.  Now the conversation that takes place about these students is about if their method of protest is constitutionally protected or not, and this is where the current criminal prosecution stems from.

Rachel Roberts, law student and representative of the Jewish Voice for Peace, also spoke at the town hall meeting about her personal involvement in a similar protest in New Orleans 9 months after the UC Irvine protest.  This time, it wasn't Ambassador Oren who was being protested, it was the Prime Minister of Israel himself, Benjamin Netanyahu.  When discussing the issue of the method of protest, she admitted that “sometimes, in certain circumstances, expressing outrage is more appropriate than sitting still and writing down your grievances on a 3×5 index card which a moderator may or may not read or being forced to stand on a sidewalk, where the speaker can ignore you, where his supporters can go on pretending that they have the right idea and that you're just a bunch of crazy people.”

To interfaith community leader Reverend Wilfredo Benitez, it was obvious that these students' actions were “born of the prophetic directive to denounce injustice wherever it may be,” and idea “deeply ingrained in all Abrahamic faiths.”  To him, it seemed that“from a theological perspective [the students] had every right to do what they did…because it was for them a matter of faith and conscience and thus they could not be silent.”

University Actions & The MSU

The UC Irvine campus was one of the main places the actions of the protestors and the freedom of speech debate took place.

The protest occured at the UC Irvine campus, and the administration of the schools took it upon themselves to discipline the UC Irvine & UC Riverside students who had engaged in the protest.  The Irvine 11 legal team head attorney Reem Salahi said that the individuals “underwent months upon months of administrative University proceedings…[lasting] as long as 8 months for some of them.”  The punishments of the students are undisclosed due to privacy policies.

Not only was the UC Irvine administration bent on disciplining the individual Muslim students who participated in the protest as individuals, it also pursued disciplinary actions against the campus's Muslim student organization, the MSU.

Based on its alleged involvement with the Irvine 11 protest, the MSU was suspended for an academic quarter and is now serving a2 year probation. MSU spokesperson, Hamza Siddiqui,   said that the “increasingly draconian” stance of the UC Irvine administration, and of the UC school system as a whole, carried out “unprecedented suspension [of the MSU] for political speech.”  He reported that the reasons that other campus organizations have been suspended in the past are due to alcohol and hazing.  These measures against the MSU have dampened the atmosphere on campus, creating a “stigma” against the MSU, its members, and more broadly, all Muslim students on campus.  A campus-wide email was sent to all students, including incoming freshmen, announcing the University's punishment of the MSU, projecting a negative impression of the organization and its members from the outset of the school year.

Check out the video that was circulating around campus in order to gain support against the punishment of the 11 students and the Muslim Student Union.  Set to a powerful address by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, the footage of the student protest is incredibly moving.

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**this is a great video to share with others**

And check out another video about selective punishment of disruptive protests at UC Irvine.

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The MSU is a huge and highly active organization on campus, boasting with about 75 active members and 250 members in total.  The MSU has been a positively contributing organization on campus since its instatement.  It recently received the Social Justice Award from the UC Irvine Cross Cultural Center and in the greater MSA community, won the 2011 MSA West Funnies Video Contest (video here).  MSU collaborates with other organizations on campus and hosts events that promote Islam awareness, humanitarian causes, and student issues.  Not merely an organization committed to serving the campus community, the MSU provides much needed religious services to all Muslims, undergraduates, graduates, and even faculty members.  From the daily congregational prayers to weekly Friday prayers to regular religious classes with local scholars and religious figures, the MSU is a platform on which Muslim students can implement their faith on a regular basis as well as developing it.

The MSU does more than just providing much-needed religious services, it has a large “social element… [which] provides a space in a comfortable environment” for Muslim students to connect with other Muslim students on campus.  The MSU goes “beyond basic, elementary [religious services],” Siddiqui said.  Muslim students can “find a family here at the MSU,” a family of “like-minded and socially conscious” individuals that “facilitates growth, both spiritually and socially.”  The members of MSU have “created an inclusive and diverse culture,” the holistic organization “producing well-rounded individuals.  [MSU] allows young Muslims to feel confident in and comfortable with sharing their Muslim identity.”  With the suspension and subsequent probation that the MSU is following, the capacity of the MSU to function in the way that students need and expect it to is cut off and severely limited.

Not only is the punishment of the MSU a disservice to the Muslims on campus, it also is a disservice to other students.  Additionally, the punishment has consequently fostered an environment of prejudice and intolerance of Muslim students.

The actions of the university also send strong messages to other students who wish to engage in protest and express their dissenting views.  Siddiqui said that the disciplinary measures have caused students to be “afraid of the consequences of expressing their sincerely held political views” because they “don't' know what repercussions to expect for their actions.”  This “more repressive and less tolerant” attitude has been seen on the other UC campuses of UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UC Riverside.

The Implications of this Case

Despite university discipline of the students, the criminal charges against the 11 still stand.  Acting against the will of the UC Irvine administration and faculty (100 of whom signed a petition and letter to the DA), DA Tony Rackauckas is, as attorney Reem Salahi put it, “interjecting himself into a process that has already taken place.”  Meddling in what many regard a campus issue that has been resolved, Lekovic of MPAC agreed with Salahi, saying that “it was handled on campus and it needs to be left on campus.  It was a campus matter.  And those people in the campus community oppose this issue being taken on to a broader level.”

She called this case a “disproportionate attack on these students compared to what has happened in other exact same situations.  They have suffered consequences that other individuals facing the same individual have not suffered.  That is not fair, that is not American, that is not justice

The DA's Office undertook excessive measures to investigate what happened and spent tax dollars to do so.  Salahi reported that the OC District Attorney had taken 362 days to investigate the case, hiring at least 2 investigators who allegedly posed as police and FBI to get forced testimonies.  Additionally, 6 students who witnessed the event were subpoenaed by a Grand Jury.

The discrimination that this specific group of students is facing is troubling.  The DA's Office has “engaged in a witch hunt, where his office has literally targeted the weakest and most vulnerable elements of society…targeting students, youth, and in a post 9-11 world, Muslims,” Salahi said.

Ayloush called the community to wake up to a “reality check” and contextualized the Irvine 11 case with the other events occurring in Orange County.  He asked “Where is Orange County?  What is Islamophobia?” Recent events have exposed the discriminatory attitudes that Muslims are facing locally.  A protest organized and supported by public elected officials against an ICNA fundraising dinner in Yorba Linda (check out the recent MM article!) is one of the most recent and extreme examples of this.  The larger Muslim community in Orange County, not only the 11 students, has experienced increased anti-Muslim sentiments.  Reverend Benitez thinks that this is a“step backwards in interfaith relations.  {The DA] is sending the wrong message” one of “intolerance that some would interpret as Islamophobia.”

The impacts of this case are larger than the Orange County community.  For college students, the criminal prosecution of these 11 students would set a “terrible precedence,” one that will stunt student protest all over the country,” Lekovic said.  “It might be these 11 students today, it might be 11 Muslim students today, but tomorrow, it could be any other students, any other members of our community…and other members of any other community who are standing up to speak their minds and to peacefully demonstrate.”

Essential American principles are at stake with the fate of these 11 students.  Salahi attested that “protesting and expressing dissent makes up the very fabric of the American society.”

What You Can Do To Help

The Irvine 11 campaign has been the major proponent with expressing and gaining support for these students.  You can check out the website to access more resources and for more information on the 11.  You can also “like” the Irvine 11 Facebook page, which is updated with the latest developments on the case.

Check out the latest Irvine 11 campaign video produced through MSA West that shows state-wide support for the students against their current criminal prosecution.  Supporters include current students and alumni,  One Legacy Radio (Muslim radio channel in Orange County) “In the Mix” show host DJ Halal, international artists LowKey and Shadia Mansour, UC Berkeley Professor Hatem Bazian and UC Irvine Professor Rei Terada, CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush, and even imam Suhaib Webb!

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  1. Sign the petition.
  2. Email the Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas <tony.rackauckas@da.ocgov.com> and tell him to stop the criminal prosecution of these 11 peaceful student protestors who have already faced disciplinary actions from the university.
  3. Spread the word and educate others.
  4. Most importantly—make du'a.

I leave you with Edina Lekovic's closing statement.

“Their voices have been muted, silenced. We all have the opportunity to break that silence for them, by sharing their stories and telling our stories as local Muslim Americans.”

I am proud to say, that I stand with the 11.

28 Responses

  1. Tariq Ahmed

    The OC prosecutor’s actions a particularly disgusting commentary on Justice in America when you look at the sheer depravity that a Northwestern U professor staged as an after class educational demonstration.

    To say that America has no moral compass would be wrong but to suggest that American prosecutors at the local and federal level are Just in their decisions to prosecute Muslims would be laughable.

    May Allah guide them and protect Muslims who have been abused by ignorant or vindicative prosecution.

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  2. Saba

    I love the double standards……we charge Muslims students for using their free speech with a misdemeaner but we don’t charge the Tea party for bringing on the hate at a Muslim event. (I’m referring to the article on MM regarding the orange county event that happened).

    It’s cuze we are Muslims isn’t it…
    La illah illalah Muhammadur RAsullalAllah.

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    • Meena Malik

      I was watching the congressional hearing this morning on CNN and I started crying during Congressman Keith Ellison’s address (even before he mentioned the story of the young Muslim man who died serving fellow Americans during the 9/11 attacks) because all I could think about was the recent Yorba Linda protest and especially the upcoming court case and how this discrimination and stereotyping of Muslims is a national and local problem.

      His address was really on point and touching. This is just the end of it when he breaks down, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJnHNu5eD44
      I’m waiting for the whole address to be posted, because he had some very strong and insightful things to say.

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    • EK

      As a non-Muslim UC Irvine alumni, I’ll share my perspective on this.

      The protesters outside the Yorba Linda event were vile and despicable. I in no way share their views. However, a critical distinction between their protest and the Irvine 11 is that those protesters were protesting outside the event. They did not go inside the fundraiser and repeatedly disrupt the speakers at the fundraiser.

      Even though the Irvine 11 were peaceful, the students were wrong to prevent a speaker invited to the campus from speaking and being heard. And the Muslim Student Union acted inappropriately in coordinating this and in misrepresenting its involvement to University officials.

      As Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law wrote:

      “Freedom of speech, on campus and everywhere, is rendered meaningless if speakers can be shouted down by those who disagree. The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a heckler’s veto — to prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing the speaker. There is simply no 1st Amendment right to go into an auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message.”

      Some argue that Michael Oren was able to continue with his speech so he was not silenced. I disagree. IMO, the intent of the Irvine 11 was to prevent his views from being heard. At least, it was to show he could not go onto the campus and say whatever he wanted.

      And he was not able to finish his presentation. As I understand it, the question and answer segment had to be cancelled due to time restrictions from all the disruptions.

      I do agree that the charges should be dropped. I do not see how going forward with this criminal proceedures will help anyone.

      Instead of the talking points put forward in the video, I think the general public would be more sympathic to dropping the charges if the students or the students’ representatives came out with a statement that said something to the effect that the students now see that they were wrong to use the tactics that they used. This has been a learning experience and even though the students stand by their message they are sorry to prevent a speaker from being heard. In the future, the students will protest outside events they oppose and invite speakers that share their own perspective and hope the public will be open minded to hear their perspective.

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      • Amad

        Civil disobedience is not always pretty, but to take the legal issues to a level that the DA is taking is no doubt a specific fear-mongering technique, designed to scare anyone from saying anything against Israel, even the “legal type”. Which parent will allow their child to now take part in a rally against Israel for instance, even if held with permission from the University?

        Sometimes its tough to control your emotions when you have a murderer giving a speech…

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      • EK

        If students are crimially charged for peacefully protesting outside an event for whatever cause, it would be a grave injustice and in violation of the rights of free speech under the First Amendment. I believe there would be widespread support to drop any criminal charges (though I wonder what charges the DA could come up with) from the general public whatever the protesters’ message.

        In the case of these 11 students, the students’ behavior was wrong and deserves punishment, which the University has already implemented.

        There is no basis for the claim that the disruptive students were just exercising their First Amendment rights. There is no constitutional right to disrupt an event and keep a speaker from being heard. Otherwise, any speaker could be silenced by a heckler’s veto.

        Policies that prevent a heckler’s veto encourage free speech, they do not limit free speech.

        I hope the charges are dismissed.

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      • Ummi

        The free speech of a speaker is protected under the 1st Amendment from government infringement, not from private infringement. Heckling and booing a speaker may be bad manners, but it is not a violation of the 1st Amendment.

        When Republican House member Wilson shouted “You lie!” to the President during his health care speech to Congress, Wilson did not face criminal charges.

        The students have the right to free speech, and certainly their statements neither prevented the speaker from speaking nor rendered it impossible for the meeting to continue.

        No private citizen prevented the Ambassador from being heard, but the pressing of criminal charges against the 11 enlists the government in censuring their speech and sends a chilling message that can suppress speech of similar content by similar speakers.

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      • EK

        @Ummi

        Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s law school and a constitutional-law expert does not believe the Irvine 11 would prevail in a constitutional challenge of the case against them.

        Saying he has “looked at the statutes” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas cited as the basis for filing criminal misdemeanor charges against the protesters from UCI and UC Riverside, Chemerinsky writes in an e-mail this morning, “I think that the students are very unlikely to prevail in a constitutional challenge.”

        See
        http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2011/03/michael_oren_irvine_11_arraign.php?page=3

        Yes, lets look at what happened after Joe Wilson yelled during Obama’s speech.

        Republicans and Democrats alike condemned his behavior.

        Wilson acknowledged he was wrong and issued an apology and called the White House to deliver one to the president personally.

        He said, “While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”

        I think that following Wilson’s lead would be is a good course of action for the students.

        Then lets move on.

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      • EK

        For the last sentence I meant to type

        I think the DA would then drop the charges and then we could move on.

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      • Brother

        Yeah, the free speech issue can be quite debatable. The question here is that are these hecklers being treated differently than other hecklers (of similar circumstances) because of their religion, or because of the speaker. What do you think?

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      • Ummi

        @ EK

        We don’t know what motivated Wilson’s apology – perhaps pressure from his constituents or peers – but it wasn’t the prospect of facing a felony charge.

        Chemerinsky is entitled to his legal views, but they are not definitive.

        The Supreme Court of California has already ruled on heckling’s place in the public square (In re Kay), and it is up to lawyers on both sides and a judge, or judges, to interpret and rule on it in this instance.

        We do know that the Irvine 11’s speech was nonviolent, it did not significantly disrupt or at all prevent the speaker’s speech, and it occurred in a setting – a university campus – that is by custom used to nonviolent, often creative and disruptive, demonstrations of a political nature.

        Whether the Irvine 11’s speech was in poor taste is irrelevant to what they have been charged with. Free speech is often in poor taste and/or offensive. And I don’t think the Irvine 11’s speech was particularly wise. College kids do a lot of unwise things.

        If the charges are dropped, this should not be considered a gift to the Irvine 11, but an admission that what they did was not a felony. And if the charges are dropped, an apology from the Irvine 11 for bad manners might be in order.

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      • EK

        Just for the record: the students are not being charged with a felony.

        They are being charged for two misdemeanors.

        Law Concerning Disturbance of a Meeting or Assembly (Penal Code § 403) – Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character is guilty of a misdemeanor.

        Penal Code § 403 does not require that a defendant’s conduct create a clear and present danger of violent conduct on the part of the defendant or of others or that it endangered public safety and order

        Law Concerning Conspiracy (Penal Code § 182) and Proof by Circumstantial Evidence Penal Code § 182 renders it unlawful for “two or more persons [to] conspire to commit any crime.” It further states, “Conspiracy is a specific intent crime requiring an intent to agree or conspire, and a further intent to commit the target crime,” with at least one overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy be committed by one or more of the parties to the conspiracy.

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      • Ummi

        yes, thank you for that correction, they are misdemeanor charges

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  3. Jonny

    As a non-muslim I would just like say that the DA is at the very least a horribly misguided and biased man. Particularly he should have no grounds for action after cases such as the Westboro Bapist Church gave the 1st ammendmant priorty over hate speach (which Irvine 11 were not doing).

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    • Amad

      Thanks Jonny… To be honest, the DA probably knows that this will be a farce, but by the time it gets there, the real goal of fear-mongering by the Israel Lobby will be accomplished. Who else would dare do this again?

      Shame on the DA and shame on the Lobby for reaching new low levels. They can keep pushing the bar and eventually it will snap and there will be a major blowback for the lobby. You can bet on that.

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  4. Brother

    With regards to free speech, I was under the impression that its purpose was to promote honest dialogue and thus help the community progress and get past controversial issues/problems(I could be wrong). Nowadays, it includes pornography and vulgarity. With regards to heckling, does it ever accomplish anything?

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  5. Me

    I don’t think they should face any criminal charges but I believe what they did was very disrespectful. What did they gain by shouting and stopping the event??? Nothing. I believe in protest if it’ll bring something positive.. It only brought more harm than good. Was it worth it, I doubt it.

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    • EK

      I agree. Nothing positive has come out of this event and the students should not face criminal charges.

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  6. QasYm

    2 weeks ago, Imam Siraj went to the Univ. of Central Florida to give a talk. He was interrupted many times by protesters, even though they were warned several times not to interrupt. I wonder if they will be given the same treatment. Sad.

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    • Amad

      You can bet they won’t
      That’s why I don’t buy the whole argument that it was sacrilegious only to protest at this one event though booing and hooting happens all the time

      This is all about fear mongering.. let’s admit it

      Part of Israel lobby strategy to protect Israel where they feel they have least inroads into– the university campuses

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      • Meena

        I definitely agree it’s solely to incite fear amongst students all over the US. This is an attempt to shut down opposition of the Israeli crimes committed against the Palestinians. College campuses is an important place where this sort of political action is taken, and Zionists are trying to save Israel by cutting out anyone who speaks against it.

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  7. Andrew Brown

    Put them on trial.

    Let the court decide if they have committed the crime.

    That is after all why courts exist. Once charges are laid you can’t dismiss them simply in response to a public pressure campaign. That would undermine the whole justice system.

    XAB

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  8. Ian C. Adams

    [...] Muslim Matters has a good post that details the entire situation in Irvine, and what is becoming a fight between the City of Irvine and UCI. [...]

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  9. FT

    I have 2 questions for those who are convinced that the Irvine 11 or 14?, are being dealt with in an unjust manner.
    1) What of the freedom of speech of the guest speaker and those who attended the event to hear what he had to say? Were their rights trampled by a group of rude children who in fact new the better way but made a conscious decision to conduct themselves as rude children?

    2) If this event were set in a University in Palestine and non- Muslims had offered the same treatment to the Ambassador of, let us say, Syria, what do you believe the outcome for the hecklers would have been?

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