When 11 students affiliated with the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States last year, they no doubt knew there would be consequences. Rather than staging a traditional protest — by leafleting, say, or holding up signs expressing their disapproval — they attended the event as members of the audience and then stood up, one by one, and shouted the ambassador down more than a dozen times.
The university was right to punish the students, who needed to be taught that it is not an appropriate use of one's free speech rights to deny someone else the opportunity to make himself heard. That's especially true on a college campus, where the open exchange of ideas is a fundamental principle. The university suspended the Muslim Student Union and disciplined some of the individual students involved, steps that were appropriate and sufficient.
But the decision last week by Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to bring criminal conspiracy charges against the students now, a year after the fact, is completely disproportionate. There is no good reason to take these college students to court, threaten them with as much as six months in jail and jeopardize their futures and careers over a nonviolent protest that didn't, ultimately, prevent the ambassador from speaking.
"We must decide whether we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy," Rackauckas said Friday. "We cannot tolerate a pre-planned violation of the law."
That smug statement smacks of political posturing on what is a highly publicized but ultimately not very important case. The district attorney has great discretion over which cases he pursues and could easily have decided to leave well enough alone. Despite Rackauckas' soapbox musings about the future of "our democratic society," the fact is that America would not have devolved into anarchy if these criminal charges had not been brought. Shame on him for pretending it would have.