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Old 09-23-2011, 03:35 PM
Borderwatch Borderwatch is offline
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Default UC Muslim students guilty of disturbing speech


SANTA ANA – A jury Friday found 10 Muslim university students guilty of disrupting a speech by an Israeli diplomat at UC Irvine last year, in a case that focused on free speech.

The six-man, six-woman jury found the students guilty on one count each of misdemeanor disturbing a public meeting and conspiracy in connection with the Feb. 8, 2010, talk by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

"We're delighted the jury saw this the same way we saw it," said Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner.

The prosecution said the defendants used a "heckler's veto" to thwart the free-speech rights of the speaker and others in the audience, while the defense countered that what the protesters did was a lawful expression of their free speech.

Defense attorney Dan Stormer said he was honored to represent the students, but disappointed in the verdict.

The jurors, who deliberated more than two days, left the courtroom without comment.

Some members of the audience gasped, while a few started crying as the verdict was read.

The defendants, eight of whom were present, and their attorneys huddled in a circle in court right after the jury was dismissed. They talked softly.

Afterwards, as the students streamed out, they were hugged by supporters and family members.

"I believe in the system, but I don't know what's going on with the system," said Sahar Abdel-Aziz of Irvine, who attended the trial daily.

Shalom Elcott, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, one of the sponsors of Oren's UCI talk, said in a statement:

"The verdict reaffirms that the Muslim Student Union's planned and systematic use of disruptions to trample on the free speech of others crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance. While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support 'hate speech.' "

Supporters of the so-called "Irvine 11" labeled the verdicts "a travesty of justice" at a news conference.

"It's a tragic and disgraceful day in the history of Orange County," said Rev. Wilfredo Benítez, who serves as rector of Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove. "This attack against Muslim students and the Muslim community is an attack against democracy; it's an attack on all of us."

After months of pretrial motion, the trial lasted eight days, including about two days spent on closing arguments by one prosecutor and six defense attorneys earlier this week.

Wagner told jurors the protesters' actions amounted to censorship when they planned to disrupt Oren and tried to cover it up.

The right to free speech is not absolute, he said, and it does not include canceling out the speech of others.

"If heckler's veto was allowed, then no one would have the right to free speech," he said. "Freedom does not mean that no one can tell me what I can do. That's not freedom; that's anarchy."

The prosecutor urged jurors not to buy into the "alternate reality" created by the defense, saying the defendants "convicted themselves."

Defense attorneys for the students – seven from UC Irvine and three from UC Riverside – said their clients intentionally disrupted the speech, but they believed they were conducting a peaceful protest that did not break any laws.

Both sides saw some of the same evidence presented at trial through different lenses.

Defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman referred to the students as "heroes" who acted in the "tradition of the finest American political activists."
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