Free speech rights lost a decisive battle in California when ten out of eleven students were convicted for conspiring to disrupt an event held by UC Irvine that featured Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010.
The students were charged with misdemeanor counts of conspiring to disrupt and disrupting the event. All of the students acted non-violently, only using the power of their voices to interrupt him. The students face fines, three years of temporary probation, and over fifty hours of community service.
Frighteningly, this case appears to set an imposing precedent for curbing student activism. If students are to face criminal charges whenever they choose to voice their personal beliefs on any issues, particularly political ones, then our jails will be filled with college students.
Regardless of whether you agree with their approach or their political stance, the Irvine 11 were simply expressing their views in a peaceful manner. They should not have criminal records haunting them for the rest of their lives.
The evidence presented against the students came in three forms: chains of emails, wherein their plans to disrupt the ambassador’s speech were laid out, and the minutes from the event and from Muslim Student Union meetings.
Some of the students and the Muslim student union had already been penalized by the university, with a quarter suspension and two year probation. As far as most people were concerned, this took the issue far enough. But, Orange County DA Tony Rachauckas seems to have decided to make an example out of these students. And so, nearly a full year after the incident, DA Rachauckas filed criminal charges against the eleven students.
“In a civilized society,” Rachauckas said, “we cannot allow lawful assemblies to be shut down by a small group of people using the heckler’s veto.”
The case has split the community on both sides of the debate, with sizable Jewish and Muslim populations, as it should for college campuses nationally. Defense attorneys are seeking to appeal the ruling, stating that there were no hard rules on campus for speech, and while the students might have acted in an affronting manner, they certainly did not break any laws.
“At this point, it is not just about these 10 students anymore,” said Kifah Shah, a spokeswoman for a campaign of community activists in support of the defendants. “It is about every single one of us and about whether our right to freedom of speech is going to be upheld.”
Our college campuses have traditionally been a front line for social and political debates, particularly during the Civil Rights movement. Today still, student must be allowed to exercise their own right to protest nonviolently, and to participate actively in our democracy by questioning authority and institutions.
So we as students are now tasked with reclaiming our rights to speak freely and demonstrate openly.
Again, this case is not “about” any particular individual’s stance on US-Israeli relations or Islam in America—though DA Rachauckas actions might demonstrate otherwise. Students and all Americans should be motivated and allowed to participate in political discussions—their voices should be heard, even when others do not agree with you. Free speech is a right that is not – and certainly should not – be solely protected for a privileged minority.
“I don’t want people to feel like they should be scared that they’re going to be prosecuted,” said Khalid Akhar, one of the Irvine 11. “If you want to stand for your message, you need to stand for your message. You have to be ready to accept the consequences.”