The Orange County district attorney's office charged 11 students on Friday with conspiring to disrupt a meeting and speech at UC Irvine last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
In a statement, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said charges were filed because of an "organized attempt to squelch the speaker." He said the students "meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting."
"We must decide whether we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy," Rackauckas said. "We cannot tolerate a preplanned violation of the law, even if the crime takes place on a school campus and even if the defendants are college students. In our democratic society, we cannot tolerate a deliberate, organized, repetitive and collective effort to significantly disrupt a speaker who hundreds assembled to hear."
The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine has denied planning to obstruct the event on Feb. 8, 2010. The so-called Irvine 11 are accused of disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Oren was shouted down repeatedly, and supporters cheered as students were escorted away by police. About 500 to 700 people attended the meeting, authorities said.
The Muslim Student Union was suspended by the university last year, and those involved in the disruptions were also disciplined by the university. It was one of the few recent instances in which the school recommended the ban of a student group for an action other than hazing or alcohol abuse. The incident and its aftermath sparked wide debate about free speech on campus.
Rackauckas' decision was announced just days after about 50 protesters rallied Tuesday in front of his office against possible charges. Though some inside and outside UC Irvine have criticized the students' method of protest, many said university sanctions were sufficient punishment.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine's law school, said that he didn't think criminal charges were warranted and that he hopes the charges can be dealt with simply.
"I think that university discipline was sufficient," he said.
The defendants are accused of meeting with other members of the Muslim Student Union six days before the event to discuss options to respond to Oren's speech.
According to prosecutors, students circulated e-mails and held multiple meetings to plan the disruption. Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23, a defendant in the case and the president of the Muslim Student Union at the time, is accused of sending an e-mail Feb. 3 to the organization's message board announcing: "We will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador's speech."
Abdelgany is accused of sending an e-mail on Feb. 7 to the same message board advising "nondisruptors" to cheer after each "disruptor" finished.
The other defendants are Khalid Bahgat Akari, 19; Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, 23; Joseph Tamim Haider, 23; Taher Mutaz Herzallah, 21; Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, 20; Shaheen Waleed Nassar, 21; Mohammad Uns Qureashi, 19; Ali Mohammad Sayeed, 23; Osama Ahmen Shabaik, 22; and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina, 19.
Jesse Rosenblum, president of the Zionist Organization of America's Orange County chapter, said he attended the event and called the students "unruly."
"It is only appropriate that violations of our valuable 1st Amendment protections should be prosecuted," he said in a statement.
Eight of the defendants are students at UC Irvine; the other three were students at UC Riverside. Each is charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of disturbance of the meeting. If convicted, they face possible fines, probation, community service or jail time.
Jacqueline Goodman, a criminal defense attorney representing some of the students, said Rackauckas' actions are "dangerous to a democracy."
"The last thing we want to do is inhibit the free exchange of ideas, and that's the only thing that prosecuting these students can achieve," she said.
The students will be arraigned March 11 in Santa Ana. Goodman said late Friday that all 11 plan to plead not guilty.