[Marxism] Anti-Zionist students found guilty of "heckling"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 26 07:15:58 MDT 2011


'Irvine 11' Found Guilty
September 26, 2011

After a rare prosecution related to a campus protest, 10 Muslim 
students who are Palestine supporters were found guilty of 
misdemeanors Friday for heckling the Israeli ambassador to the 
United States when he spoke at the University of California at Irvine.

But the verdict, which ended a two-week trial in Orange County, is 
unlikely to put to rest a controversy that raged for more than a 
year and a half, from the incident itself in February 2010 through 
the university’s response and now the trial and sentencing. The 
students’ lawyers have vowed to appeal. And some experts on campus 
free speech say the verdict could have consequences elsewhere, 
especially if other district attorneys choose to follow Orange 
County’s lead in prosecuting student protesters.

“It seems as if the rules have been rewritten,” said Jarret 
Lovell, a professor of politics at California State University at 
Fullerton, who has studied and written on protest. He said he sees 
universities as a place for trial and error, where students can 
try to apply civics lessons in practice -- even if the result is 
rude and, as he described the interruptions, “absolutely silly.”

“I think what this prosecution does is it sends a message that 
says if you’re going to engage in protest, you’d better get it 
right the first time around,” he said.

Speakers who strongly support or criticize Israel are 
controversial on many campuses, and at Irvine, which has a history 
of troubled relationships between some Muslim and Jewish student 
groups, controversy over Michael Oren’s speech was almost inevitable.

Sure enough, during the speech, 11 students, some from Irvine and 
others from the University of California at Riverside, repeatedly 
interrupted, rising one at a time to shout criticism of Israel and 
drawing applause from others in the crowd. (A video distributed by 
a pro-Israel group documented the interruptions.) Officials 
pleaded with the audience, both before the speech and after the 
interruptions, to let Oren continue; he did so, but ended his 
speech before a scheduled question-and-answer session.

The university condemned the heckling. While the protesters argued 
that theirs was a case of academic freedom and free expression, 
most campus policies defend the right to protest outside a talk, 
or to ask critical questions afterward, but not the right to 
interrupt repeatedly.

After an investigation that found that the Muslim Student Union 
had organized the protest, Irvine officials suspended the group 
for a quarter -- an unusual step, since college officials rarely 
discipline political or religious groups. And while the university 
then considered the matter settled, the Orange County district 
attorney decided to proceed with a trial, charging all 11 students 
with two misdemeanors: conspiracy to disrupt a public speech, and 
disrupting it. The prosecution argued that the students acted as 
censors by disrupting the speech. The defense countered that the 
protests were legal and the prosecution infringed on the students' 
rights, emphasizing that the students' comments took up a small 
fraction of Oren's 30-minute speech.

Some who had criticized the students’ actions, including Lovell, 
said taking the case to a jury was going too far and could have a 
“muting effect” both on student activism and on universities’ 
willingness to invite speakers who could be controversial.

Others, including the president of the Israel on Campus coalition, 
said the verdict was important for academic freedom and sent a 
message that shouting speakers down would not be tolerated.

“It was an important vindication of the right of academic 
institutions and communities to protect academic freedom and 
academic integrity,” said Stephen Kuperberg, president of the 
coalition, which has not taken an official position on the case. 
“The court reached the appropriate verdict.”

Sanctioning the student organization was appropriate, given the 
repeated nature and intensity of the interruptions, said Cary 
Nelson, president of the American Association of University 
Professors: “Academic freedom requires any invited speaker to be 
given the space to deliver a talk,” he wrote in an e-mail to 
Inside Higher Ed.

Still, Nelson said the prosecution was unnecessary. “Except in the 
case of serious felonies, I object to the town/gown version of 
double jeopardy, in which punishments occur both on and off 
campus,” he wrote.

Many framed the controversy in ethnic or religious terms: in 
addition to the history of conflict between supporters of the 
Israeli and Palestinian causes at Irvine, charges were brought 
against the students a week before a protest at an Islamic charity 
event in Orange County. (Those who supported the court's actions, 
including Kuperberg, said the question was not Israelis vs. 
Palestinians, or Jews vs. Muslims, but rather a legal point.)

The trial was in part a result of that atmosphere, said Robert M. 
O’Neil, an emeritus professor of law and First Amendment expert at 
the University of Virginia. He noted that the case had other 
unique features, including the fact that students were 
interrupting a foreign ambassador and the clear ground rules that 
the university stated before the speech began.

“For some reason, the Middle East tension seems to have played out 
almost uniquely in Orange County and specifically at UCI,” said 
O’Neil, who leads the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues 
project, which seeks to help universities foster conversations on 
touchy issues. “Therefore, my best guess is that each of these 
incidents is distinctive, if not unique, and particularly the 
criminal sanctions here are not likely to translate very extensively.”

In the end, the 10 students (one of the so-called “Irvine 11” 
pleaded guilty in exchange for community service and probation 
before the trial began) were sentenced to 56 hours of community 
service and three years’ informal probation.

But as the planned appeal goes forward, some controversy will no 
doubt linger.

“One of the advantages that universities have over any other 
social institution is that they can deal with things themselves, 
without the law having to get involved,” Lovell said. “This was 
such a case.”

— Libby A. Nelson

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