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UCI Muslim students found guilty of disrupting speech

September 23, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Ten Muslim students were found guilty of misdemeanor charges for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at UC Irvine last year.

The case had sparked a freedom of speech debate.

Nearly 200 people packed the courtroom to hear closing arguments at the trial that some community members called a waste of taxpayers' money and an effort to single out the defendants because they are Muslim.

The students, earlier dubbed the "Irvine 11," stood up one by one and shouted prepared statements at Ambassador Michael Oren, such as "propagating murder is not an expression of free speech," during his speech in February 2010.

Charges against an 11th student were dropped pending completion of community service.

Both sides agreed the protest was planned by the students, but the prosecution had accused the students of having a game plan to "shout down Ambassador Michael Oren."

Prosecutor Dan Wagner told jurors the students acted as censors to block the free flow of ideas and infringed upon the rights of 700 people who had gone to the Irvine campus to hear Oren.

"In this country, you get to protest. That's a vital component of our society," said Dan Stormer, the defendants' civil rights attorney.

"We can't allow a group of people to shut down the free speech of our society. We can't allow them to use the 'heckler's veto,'" said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

"I hope that America will not allow the death of democracy, but will give life to dissent," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

"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.' The verdict reaffirms 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," said Shalom C. Elcott, president and chief executive officer, Jewish Federation and Family Services Orange County, in a statement.

"Do not let this case deter you. Do not let this case falter your activism. Make this case the platform to intensify activism on the Palestine issue in this country," said defendant Taher Herzallah.

"I intend to continue my activism to give a voice to the voiceless, including my cousins who died during the Gaza massacre," said defendant Shaheen Nassar.

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

The students were sentenced to three years probation and ordered to complete 56 hours of community service. Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson says if the students complete the community service by Jan. 31, their probation can be lifted after one year.

Dan Stormer said the group plans to appeal the conviction.

The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this story.

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