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Free speech on trial at UC Irvine

This one is practically too ironic for words—an assault on free speech in the name of..."free speech." Here are the facts, from JTA, Sept. 23:

A California jury found 10 Muslim students guilty of misdemeanors for disrupting a 2010 speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

In a case that drew national attention, 11 Muslim students had stood one by one and interrupted a February 2010 speech by Oren at the University of California - Irvine. Oren twice walked off the stage as students shouted “Mass murderer!” and “War criminal!” before being hauled out of the room by campus police. A planned Q&A session after the address was dropped.

The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine, which organized the heckling, was suspended for a year by the school for violating the school’s code of conduct, but four months later got the suspension changed to probation on appeal.

About a year afterward, charges were brought against the students for the disruptions. One later got the charges dismissed for pledging to perform community service.

The charges created a fierce debate on campuses over the line between student activism and uncivil behavior.

Arguments at the trial largely revolved around two differing views of freedom of speech. District Attorney Dan Wagner describing the students as “censors” who utilized the “heckler’s veto.” “This is about freedom of speech,” Wagner said in his closing statement. “That’s why were all here.”

Defense attorneys described the charges as an attempt to chill free political speech on campus...

The defendants face up to 6 months in prison and a fine.

The charges were protested in an open letter to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas earlier this year. (Note to JTA: Dan Wagner is the deputy district attorney.) It was signed by several community leaders and members of the clergy, including (thankfully!) at least one rabbi. An excerpt as it appeared in the OC Register on Feb. 4:

We fervently regret that the OCDA’s investigation of the event has risen to the level of grand jury proceedings, and we have no alternative but to believe felony charges would be excessive. First, the students non-violently and verbally protested a university-invited speaker. The students left the event peacefully, and conducted themselves in less of a disruptive manner than some of the counter-protesters, all of which is readily apparent from the video footage available online. Such protests are common to university campuses, where the exercise of free and dissident speech is the bedrock of our democratic process. It is our understanding that the Muslim Student Union and possibly some of the involved students have already been reprimanded by the UCI administration...

Over the years, there have been countless instances of non-violent protest activities during campus speeches, including at UCI, with no comparable criminal prosecution. By criminally prosecuting one set of protesters and not others, including the counter-protesters at the same event, who cursed, threatened and even assaulted the students, these indictments would be singular. Orange County citizens would understand from your office’s actions that minority or disfavored groups receive a disproportionate and selective application of the law, while the integrity of the office of the OCDA as well as the justice system would be profoundly undermined.

Most importantly, indicting these students would have a severe chilling effect on the exercise of free speech on campuses and elsewhere. Because the right to freely express oneself, particularly against government policies, is a cherished freedom protected by our Constitution, only in very narrow circumstances may these activities be subdued by state action.

It seems that felony charges were ultimately not brought—the students were sentenced on misdemeanor charges. And we acknowledge that that this is a somewhat complicated question. AP informs us that one of the heckles at the event was "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech." Well, actually, yes it is. As we had to point out during the "Cartoon Jihad" five years ago:  If free speech doesn't protect even vicious propaganda, it's not free speech.

That said, the student protesters are also entitled to free speech, and with far less of a media amplifier available to them than the Israeli ambassador, they should be cut some slack for heckling. In any event, six months prison time for heckling is clearly way, way over the top. Perhaps pressure can be put on the judge before this sentence is imposed. Insh'allah.

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