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Trial begins for UCI Muslim student group

August 29, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Trial has begun for 10 Muslim students accused of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. at University of California-Irvine last year. The case has sparked a debate about freedom of speech.

Was it freedom of speech? Or did these 10 young men conspire to disrupt the ambassador's speech that night in February of 2010? That's what's on trial. Both sides agreed the protest was planned by the students, and it's a protest that could send these young men to jail.

The students are charged with conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting involving the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.'s speech in UC Irvine in February 2010.

The prosecution in its opening statement Wednesday afternoon says the evidence will show the defendants had a game plan to "shout down Ambassador Michael Oren."

Part of the evidence is emails between the defendants, members of the campus group Muslim Student Union of UCI, on what they were going to do at that meeting.

Before the proceedings, representatives from a diverse group of civic groups came out to support the students, collectively stating the defendants in their protest were exercising the right to free speech.

"We believe that the students have the right and continue to have the right to speak out their minds," said Salam Al-Marayati, Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Especially when this was a non-violent incident on a campus."

"We know of no other case where students have been criminally charged by a district attorney for interrupting a speaker to make a political point," said Estee Chandler, Jewish Voice for Peace.

A team of lawyers represents the students. One defense attorney says the students did plan to stay within the law to protest then peacefully and politely leave.

The prosecution says a group tried to cover up their plans by publicly saying these were individual protests not organized as a group by the Muslim Student Union.

Moutaz Herzallah is the father of one of the defendants.

"I am so amazed that my son is being tried in a superior court in Orange County for being active in college," said Herzallah. "This is something unheard of in a democracy like the United States."

UC Irvine took action against the Muslim Student Union by banning the group from campus for one year.

If the 10 are convicted of the two misdemeanor counts they face, they could face up to six months in jail each.

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