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UC Irvine recommends suspension of campus' Muslim student group

University officials recommend the suspension after members disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador earlier this year, heightening a debate about free speech that has roiled the campus.

June 15, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim, Christopher Goffard and Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

UC Irvine officials have recommended the suspension of the university's Muslim student group whose members disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador earlier this year, heightening a debate about free speech that has roiled the campus.

The decision appears to be the first in recent memory at UC recommending the ban of a student group for something other than hazing or alcohol abuse.

In making the suspension recommendation, Lisa Cornish, UC Irvine's director of student housing, found that the Muslim Student Union had "planned, orchestrated and coordinated in advance" an effort to disrupt a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on Feb. 8 about U.S.-Israeli relations. The recommendation was made in late May but not made public at that time.

Oren was shouted down repeatedly by Muslim students who stood up and delivered statements such as "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech." Supporters cheered as the students were escorted away by police, and each time Oren attempted to resume his speech, another student jumped up with another outburst.

Eleven UC Irvine and UC Riverside students were arrested and cited for disturbing a public event, but none have been criminally charged. The Muslim Student Union claimed the disruptions were caused by individuals and were not organized by their group.

In a report detailing the findings of its investigation, Cornish cited e-mails between members of the student union and detailed minutes from a Feb. 3 meeting.

According to the report, the group's goal was to "send the speaker a message" and to develop a "game plan" to disrupt Oren's speech.

The plan included identifying students willing to participate, drafting scripted statements and urging supporters to attend and cheer each disruption. The plan also instructed students to deny that the Muslim Student Union organized the protest, according to the report.

The group violated university policies prohibiting "fabricating information (or) furnishing false information," "obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration … or other University activities," "disorderly or lewd conduct" and "participation in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly," according to the report.

Along with a one-year suspension, which would begin in September, the report requires members of the student union to complete 50 hours of community service. If the group is suspended, its current officers could not act as "authorized signers" for any other student organization.

UC President Mark G. Yudof said Monday he had no role in the decision to recommend the suspension, although he was told of the decision a few days ago, according to Lynn Tierney, the UC system's associate vice president for communications.

"It was a process handled completely locally," Tierney said.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine's law school, said the ban was appropriate punishment and stressed it stemmed not from the students' speech but for misrepresenting their role in the incident. "Given the seriousness of the offense, I think it's completely appropriate to suspend them for a year," he said.

Reem Salahi, the students' attorney, described the suspension recommendation as "excessive" and "draconian." She said it is not final and that her clients have appealed the decision.

UC Irvine has long been a flashpoint of tensions between Muslim and Jewish groups. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigated whether the university discriminated against Jews. That probe found that although Muslim students had engaged in offensive behavior, their actions stemmed from opposition to the policies of Israel rather than to Jewish students themselves.

Monday, Jewish groups praised the recommended ban of the student union and called it a victory against hate speech. Muslim activists said the suspension amounts to "collective punishment" that targets a whole group for the actions of a few.

Salahi said she worried the recommendation could jeopardize Muslim life on campus. Victor Sanchez, president of the systemwide UC Student Assn., said he was outraged. "It's almost impossible not to interpret this as a means of the university to silence dissent," he said.

Isaac Yerushalmi, former president of Anteaters for Israel, which sponsored Oren's appearance in February, said the Muslim Student Union has been "involved in repeated attempts to silence Jewish voices on campus."

Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan, who was with the Israeli ambassador during his speech, accused the Muslim Student Union of "spreading hate" and stifling "free discussion and open debate."

Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine professor who helped sponsor Oren's address and who tried to quell the disruptions by urging Muslim students to respect their guest, said after the speech that he received e-mails from around the world, including one from a friend alerting him that the controversy had made the news in Tel Aviv.

After the Oren incident, the New York-based Zionist Organization of America urged college-bound students, as well as financial donors, to avoid UCI as a campus that permitted bigotry.

Jewish groups cite several incidents of perceived anti-Semitism on campus, including the defacing of an Israeli flag in a dorm room, the display of a poster equating the Star of David with a swastika, the vandalizing of a Holocaust memorial, and a 2006 program sponsored by the Muslim Student Union titled "Holocaust in the Holy Land" and "Israel: The Fourth Reich."

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

larry.gordon@latimes.com

Anna Gorman and Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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