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'Irvine 11' plead not guilty to misdemeanor charges of disrupting an Israeli ambassador's campus speech

Court action resumes in May in a case that pits prosecutors' allegations of conspiracy against students' claims to the right of free speech.

April 16, 2011|By Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times
  • Mohamed Abdelgany, left, Khalid Akari, Shaheen Nassar and Hakim Kebir, four of 11 students in the case, are flanked by their attorneys at the arraignment hearing. All pleaded not guilty.
Mohamed Abdelgany, left, Khalid Akari, Shaheen Nassar and Hakim Kebir,… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Orange County prosecutors didn't flinch Friday when a group of university student activists charged with disturbing an Israeli ambassador's speech last year at UC Irvine brought more than 60 supporters with them to court.

Instead, prosecutors filed a motion at the hearing to release grand jury transcripts from their investigation and handed out copies of court filings they said illustrated point by point how the students — "the Irvine 11" — conspired to disrupt Ambassador Michael Oren's speech at UC Irvine on Feb. 8, 2010, then tried to cover it up.

"They're caught red-handed," Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner said outside court. "They very intentionally tried to shut down" Oren's speech.

Prosecutors have charged eight former or current UC Irvine and three UC Riverside students with misdemeanor conspiracy to commit a crime and misdemeanor disruption of a meeting. Seven of the 11 were in court and pleaded not guilty. Attorneys pleaded not guilty on behalf of the other four.

"This isn't about the war on Gaza, it's about democracy here," said defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman. "It was a principled protest by top students.… They're fighting for all of us."

"We need more students like this," added defense attorney Dan Stormer.

The defense claims the students acted independently. But a motion from prosecutors released Friday suggests the disruption was organized by UC Irvine's Muslim Student Union, which is on probation because of the incident.

According to an email distributed to the school's Muslim Student Union board with minutes from a meeting days before the protest, the students considered Oren's appearance to be "sending [the] message that this is an Israeli campus again" and they would conduct a "Chicago-style" protest to "disrupt the whole event" and "shut down with individual disruption."

The 11 students each rose individually and shouted at Oren before being escorted out by police. Prosecutors said Oren was able to speak for only three minutes in his first half hour because of protesters.

An email from one of the defendants to protesters two days before Oren's speech reminds them to shout only scripted comments, nothing ad-libbed.

"Remember that this is a planned calculated response and not a venting session," defendant Mohamed Abdelgany, 23, wrote, according to court documents.

Emails in the days after the speech urge protesters to disavow any involvement on the part of the Muslim Student Union.

Defense attorneys declined to comment on the emails until they review the motion.

The parties are due back at Santa Ana's Central Justice Center on May 13 to argue before Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson whether portions of the grand jury investigation should be unsealed. Defense attorneys have until May 6 to file their opposition to the proposal.

If convicted on all charges, each defendant would face up to six months in jail.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

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