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'Irvine 11' case goes to jury

Defense and prosecution focus on the 1st Amendment during closing arguments in a case that grew out of Muslim students' protest at an Israeli ambassador's speech at UC Irvine.

September 21, 2011|By Lauren Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Some of the so-called Irvine 11 students who are accused of illegally disrupting a speech by U.S. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UCI last year join hands with their attorney, Dan Stormer, third from left, before the start of closing arguments.
Some of the so-called Irvine 11 students who are accused of illegally disrupting… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

An Orange County Superior Court jury will begin deliberations Wednesday in the case of 10 Muslim students accused of illegally disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last year at UC Irvine.

Jurors listened to two days of closing statements before being given the so-called Irvine 11 case late Tuesday. Those deliberations are expected to last one to two days.

Each of the 10 defendants — seven from UC Irvine and three from UC Riverside — are charged with a misdemeanor for conspiring to disrupt Oren's speech on Feb. 8, 2010, and a misdemeanor for disrupting it. Charges against an 11th student were dropped pending completion of community service. The defendants face up to six months in jail.

The Orange County district attorney's office contends that the protesters prevented Oren from speaking freely when they cut off his address on U.S.-Israeli relations by standing up, one by one, and shouting at him.

The defense argues that prosecuting the students is meant to chill criticism of Israel by Muslim Americans.

In closing statements, both sides invoked the right to free speech.

Defense attorneys on Tuesday compared their clients to civil rights leaders the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez — and said that the students were defending the Constitution when they shouted in protest.

They "are serving our society with their conscience," said Jacqueline Goodman, one of six defense attorneys.

Among the comments shouted that night:

"Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!" one student yelled.

"You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!" another shouted.

Goodman said the remaining supporters of the protest peacefully walked out of the ballroom at 6:25 p.m., leaving Oren plenty of time to finish his speech. In fact, the ambassador did complete it but canceled a planned question-and-answer session.

Lisa Holder, another defense attorney, said the defendants' shouted comments were impolite and critical of Israel but legally protected by the 1st Amendment.

"Ultimately what was disruptive was the message," Holder said.

Dan Stormer, another defense attorney, told the jury in his closing statement: "Being rude may be unpleasant, but it's not unlawful."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner, in his rebuttal of the defense arguments Tuesday, said the subjects chosen by the students in their protest were irrelevant. The case, he said, is about how the defendants conducted themselves in a crowded room of 700 people, some of whom became frightened and unsettled during the disruption.

The students could have jumped up and said, "Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse!" and the result would have been the same, Wagner said. "Once the rules are getting broken like that, you don't know what's going to happen. Yes, that's anarchy. I suppose that's where they want to go."

Wagner said he believed the six defense attorneys repeatedly addressed him as "the Government," rather than by his name or "the prosecution" in order "to make it seem like a scary Big Brother idea."

A day earlier, Wagner said in his closing statement to the jury that the "right to free speech is not absolute."

He said the students, by interrupting Oren's speech in the manner they did, violated the 1st Amendment by substantially limiting the ambassador's ability to communicate his ideas.

Censorship of ideas breaks down a free exchange of information, he said.

"Who is the censor in this case?" Wagner asked the jurors. "Right there — 10 of them."

lauren.williams@latimes.com
twitter.com/lawilliams30

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