Case against Muslim student protesters nears end

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 22, 2011 5:09 PM
Case against Muslim student protesters nears end

By Tori Richards

SANTA ANA, Calif (Reuters) - A verdict is expected soon in the trial of 10 Muslim students from Southern California charged with unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador, in a case their supporters say has unfairly criminalized campus protest.

A jury on Thursday began a second full day of deliberations in the case against the students, some of them since graduated from college, who are charged with misdemeanor counts of disturbing a meeting and conspiring to do so.

The accused are calling themselves the "Irvine 11" as their protest was organized by the Muslim Student Union at the University of California at Irvine, and there were originally 11 students charged. The case against one of the students was later dropped.

Each of the remaining 10 defendants, who are all in their early twenties, faces up to six months in jail if convicted in connection with their February 2010 demonstration against a speech delivered at UC Irvine by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Students interrupted his appearance by yelling such insults as, "It's a shame this university has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself," prosecutors say.

The Orange County District Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case, has said the students -- rather than exercising their own free-speech rights -- were interfering with the right of Oren to be heard.

But the charges against the students drew an outcry from civil liberties advocates and Southern California's Muslim community, who say the students were unfairly singled out for prosecution even though similar protests are common at universities and do not result in prosecution.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at UC Irvine, also has criticized the criminal charges as heavy-handed.

"I think that their behavior was wrong and was definitely not speech protected by the First Amendment," Chemerinsky said in a statement on Thursday.

"But I also believe that this was a prosecution that never should have been brought. They were punished by the university, there was no need for criminal sanctions," he said.

The Muslim Student Union was suspended by the university for an academic quarter and put on probation for two years, said Kifah Shah, spokeswoman for the students.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Steve Gorman)