Muslim students to probation for disrupting speech

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 23, 2011 6:33 PM
Muslim students to probation for disrupting speech

By Tori Richards

SANTA ANA, Calif (Reuters) - Ten Muslim college students from Southern California were convicted and placed on probation on Friday for unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the United States last year.

The students, whose so-called "Irvine 11" case touched off a furor over free speech rights at the University of California at Irvine, were also ordered to perform 56 hours of community service.

A jury of six men and six women convicted the defendants of one count each of conspiracy and disturbing an assembly -- a verdict that was greeted by wails from spectators in a packed Santa Ana courtroom.

The convicted students were to remain on probation for three years but could have that reduced to a year once they complete the required community service. Charges have been tentatively dismissed against an 11th defendant.

"We're going to continue fighting this. We're going to appeal this decision," supporter Marya Bangee, 25, told Reuters outside the court.

"These men to us represent our struggle for civil rights in this country and for them to be found guilty and sentenced for speaking their minds is devastating for us all," Bangee said.

The case stems from a protest organized by the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine of a February 8, 2010 speech there by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Prosecutors said the students interrupted his appearance by yelling such insults as, "It's a shame this university has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself."

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, has also criticized the criminal charges as heavy-handed.

The Muslim Student Union was suspended by the university for an academic quarter and put on probation for two years.

(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)