From the hysterical reaction of two local prosecutors, you'd think Southern California suddenly had become Paris in 1848 — or, maybe, contemporary Cairo.
In Los Angeles, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who seems to have formed his notion of prosecutorial discretion during an earlier career as a schoolyard bully, has reversed his office's policy of treating arrests during the course of nonviolent political protests as infractions that could be resolved in informal hearings resulting in fines.
Instead, as The Times' Andrew Blankstein and Kate Linthicum reported Thursday, Trutanich is prosecuting dozens of people — including janitors laid off in Century City, demonstrators supporting the DREAM Act and opposing Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant statute, and opponents of rent increases — and seeking jails terms of up to a year.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, meanwhile, has filed misdemeanor criminal conspiracy charges against 11 Muslim students who last year interrupted an address by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine. A variety of civil liberties groups and many of the university's most distinguished faculty members have condemned the prosecution as selective, excessive and an affront to free speech.
It's also bemusingly after the fact and, in practical terms, irrelevant, because the university's administration dealt with the incident quickly and firmly. The students are members of the Muslim Student Union's UC Irvine and UC Riverside chapters. They rose in sequence during Oren's address and heckled him until they were removed. To his credit, the U.S.-born diplomat, who is a distinguished scholar as well as an Israeli military hero, refused to be shouted off the stage and finished his address.
The university disciplined the students and suspended their organization from on-campus activities for a quarter.
It's true that the UC Irvine protesters' objections to Israeli policies are of the particularly puerile sort that infests too many European and American campuses these days. Last February, their spokesman, Hadeer Soliman, condemned Oren as the representative of "a state that engages in war crimes and crimes against humanity." The group's annual Palestinian Awareness Week has featured bloodstained Israeli flags and patently offensive comparisons between Israel and the Third Reich.
Undergraduate rhetoric often is extreme and intemperate to the point of offense. One of the things an education ought to impart is the difference between a provocative idea or criticism and mere provocation. An excellent public university is precisely the place where that lesson should be taught, as should those concerning civility and reasonable disagreement. UC Irvine's administration has done exactly that.
Criminal prosecution for a noxious but peaceful protest, on the other hand, simply is excessive. That and the year that has passed since the alleged crimes were committed raises serious questions not only of proportionality but of selective and politically motivated prosecution that won't be easily answered.
Neither will the questions that ought to be asked about Trutanich's latest abuse of his office's powers. "My whole deal is predictability," he told The Times' reporters. "In order for us to have a civilized society, there has to be a predictable result when you break the law." The city attorney also alleged that "professionals" were paid to undertake protests. Really?
Trutanich's office has elected to dismiss charges against five California State University students who were arrested for protesting cutbacks on their campus. The only difference between their offense and that of the people the prosecutor proposes jailing for a year is that they disrupted a campus and the others disrupted traffic in Century City and in Westwood.
In other words, the city of Los Angeles' new standard is: You can exercise your 1st Amendment rights, so long as they don't disrupt the commutes of the city attorney's voters.
Pandering is not discretion, and prosecutorial discretion is the most serious of the responsibilities we repose in our public prosecutors.
As far as the charges about professional protesters go, they'd be laughable if Trutanich didn't have a by-now unfortunately demonstrable history of playing fast and loose with the truth to support the insupportable. The janitors protesting layoffs in Century City included many desperate single mothers. I know; I was there and I spoke with them. Does the city of Los Angeles really propose to amplify their misery and that of their families with a jail term?
This country has suffered far more from overreaching prosecutors than it ever has from political protest.