Eleven students charged with disrupting Israeli Ambassador's speech at UC Irvine

Eight UC Irvine students and three from UC Riverside were charged Friday with misdemeanors in connection with the protest of a speech by Israel's ambassador to the United States at UCI last year.

The Orange County District Attorney's Office filed charges of misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting, said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

The defendants are:

"This case is being filed because there was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI," Rackauckas said.

"These defendants meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting. This is a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called for the charges to be dismissed.
"We are unaware of any case where a district attorney pressed criminal charges over this type of nonviolent student protest," said Hector Villagra, the group's incoming director.

"The district attorney's action will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges."

Villagra called the prosecution "unnecessary and unwarranted."

"University officials have already addressed the issue through the discipline system," Villagra said.

"Seeking convictions, jail time and criminal records against these students is misguided. The substantial resources required for a prosecution and the grand jury that reportedly convened, would be better used to fight crimes that endanger the residents of Orange County."

The charges stem from the disruption of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's speech Feb. 8, 2010.

UCI suspended the Muslim Student Union on campus for the fall quarter -- about three months -- in part because of the disruption of Oren's speech. The group's members were ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.

A message left with attorney Reem Salahi, who represented the MSU in its appeal of the suspension, was not immediately returned.

Some Jewish organizations have complained for years about anti-Zionist activities by Muslim students at UCI. Muslim students, though, say they have been unfairly targeted by the organizations and that they were just exercising free speech rights.

About 25 parents and supporters of the students appealed to the Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to stop any prosecution of them. Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach said it would be improper for the board to interfere with Rackauckas' prosecution of the case.

The Rev. Sarah Halverson, senior pastor of Fairview Community Church, who was among the area clergy members who signed a letter urging Rackauckas to drop his investigation, sent an e-mail to City News Service tonight saying "it feels like an over-reaction to pursue felony charges."

"While their actions were unwelcome, inconvenient and disruptive, I do not believe they warranted arrests," Halverson wrote. "As a Christian, I feel like it is my duty, now more than ever, to stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters when injustice seems directed at them.

"These students were simply attempting to exercise their right to free speech. Maybe they could have done it differently, but felony charges seem inappropriate to me.

"The heightened tension at UCI right now just exacerbates the situation and this will only make things worse. It is my hope that charges will be dropped. I will be praying for reconciliation both at UCI and, of course, in Israel-Palestine."

Prosecutors say Abdelgany, who was president of the MSU at UCI, met with other members of the organization Feb. 2, 2010 to discuss how to respond to Oren's speech.

The full group met the next day after Abdelgany sent members an e-mail saying, "We will be staging a University of Chicago-style disruption of the ambassador's speech," according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors also allege Abdelgany sent an e-mail to the group's governing board and Haider, Sayeed and Shabaik saying "to the outside," the protest should be viewed as one done by individual students, not the MSU, to stymie UCI officials in case they "come after MSU."

Each defendant allegedly stood up one after the other to shout, "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech," and other declarations such as "Michael Oren you are a war criminal."