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UCI Muslim students in court for disruption

April 15, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Local Muslim college students who shouted down Israel's ambassador to the U.S. enter pleas in a controversial freedom of speech case. But whose rights were violated?

In all, 11 Muslim students were arrested for disrupting the Israel ambassador last year at University of California-Irvine.

Friday they pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident, but the highly publicized case is fueling a larger constitutional debate.

It started as a speech, then degraded into a shouting match, and landed in a courtroom.

Friday, more than a year after the incident, the 11 students made their first appearance in an Orange County courtroom.

All 11 pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of disturbance of a meeting and conspiring to disrupt a meeting.

Their attorneys accuse the Orange County District Attorney's office of prosecuting the UCI students solely to earn political points.

"There was a forum for this, the university selected that forum, and now it's turning into a political football," said defense attorney Dan Stormer. "This in no way should be in this courthouse."

The 11 students were arrested after they interrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Micheal Oren in February of last year. One by one they were led out of the hall, halting Oren's speech for 20 minutes.

Defense attorneys claim they were exercising their right to free speech. But Orange County prosecutors say they were muffling free speech.

"They very intentionally tried to shut down this meeting and essentially succeeded in doing that," said Orange County Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner. "And so the first amendment rights of the speaker were completely trampled upon by these defendants."

The Israeli ambassador, appearing on Eyewitness Newsmakers, said he takes no position on the charges pending against the students, but told UCI he'd return for another speech.

Both sides are due back in court next month. A trial, though, is still months away. That's scheduled for August.