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Ten Muslim students who are on trial for disrupting Israeli ambassador Michael Oren during an appearance at UC Irvine in effect acted as censors, a prosecutor argued in closing statements Monday.
In front of a packed Santa Ana courtroom, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner told jurors that the protesters interfered with Oren's right to free speech last year when, one by one, they stood and shouted as the ambassador tried to give a planned address on U.S.-Israeli relations.
"Who is the censor in this case?" Wagner asked the jury. "Right there — 10 of them."
Wagner said actions by the seven UC Irvine and three UC Riverside students amounted to a "heckler's veto."
"This is about freedom of speech," he said. "This is why we're all here."
Defense attorneys also called on constitutional protections in their closing arguments, saying that the district attorney was chilling political speech by prosecuting the protesters after the fact.
In her closing statement, defense attorney Reem Salahi said that while politeness works "when you visit your grandmother," such courtesy isn't necessary in a university setting, where ideas are freely exchanged.
To make a point about the defendants' shouting during Oren's speech, defense attorney Dan Mayfield stood at the back of the large courtroom and shouted to jurors, saying that the university ballroom was three to four times the size of the courtroom.
"Of course you speak loudly," Mayfield said.
But the prosecution argued that instructions from UC Irvine administrators ahead of Oren's speech gave the students opportunity to share their opinions but they chose instead to break the law.
"Yes, protesters have a long-standing tradition on campuses, we all know that," Wagner said, adding that the law also protects a "marketplace of ideas."
"Truth will win in a competitive atmosphere," he said. "To commit censorship breaks down that marketplace."
At times on Monday, the venue grew raucous as supporters of the so-called Irvine 11 applauded defense arguments.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson issued a warning to quiet down but did not remove anyone from the courtroom.
Though the trial is referred to as the Irvine 11, criminal charges were tentatively dismissed against one student, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, who was expected to complete 40 hours of community service at a Costa Mesa soup kitchen.
The 10 remaining defendants are charged with two misdemeanors of conspiracy to willfully commit a crime and disrupt a public meeting. They face up to six months in jail.
While the courtroom was jammed with about 200 spectators — including parents, student supporters, interfaith community members and teachers — dozens more waited outside.
At a midday news conference, leaders of various groups condemned the actions of the district attorney's office in the case.
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, called the closing statements of the prosecutor "political theater."
"We patiently wait for the verdict and for justice to prevail," he said.
Others at the news conference included representatives from the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Institute of Orange County.
Saadia Khan, the civic outreach coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said the district attorney's office has set an "unhealthy precedent" for free speech on college campuses nationwide by prosecuting the students.
Estee Chandler of the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace criticized the prosecution's arguments and called the students "brave young activists."
Closing arguments are scheduled to resume Tuesday.