Crime & Justice

10 of 'Irvine 11' get community service, probation

Supporters of the 'Irvine 11' after Friday's guilty verdict.
Supporters of the 'Irvine 11' after Friday's guilty verdict.
Shirley Jahad/KPCC

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Jurors on Friday found 10 of the "Irvine 11" Muslim students guilty on charges that stemmed from the disruption of a speech by the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, to the United States when he visited UC Irvine in February of last year.

The judge sentenced the 10 defendants to 56 hours of community service and three years of probation, which will be reduced to one year when the service is completed.

An 11th defendant, UC Irvine student Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, had his case tentatively dismissed before the trial on the condition that he completes 40 hours of community service.

The judge admonished those in the courtroom to hold back their emotions before the verdict was read, but there were still some gasps and several inside the courtroom crying. It appeared that most of the courtroom observers supported the students. On the way out, some observers whispered "there's no justice."

The trial that's been in headlines around the nation since February has garnered strong support on both sides.

"There is no First Amendment right to interrupt somebody else’s speech. Especially in a place which is owned by a university, where the university gets to control who gets to enter and who can’t. People can’t just shout down the speaker," Eugene Volokh, a Gary T. Schwartz professor of law at the UCLA, told KPCC's Patt Morrison shortly before the verdict.

“They certainly are free to speak to themselves outside—they can picket this, they can hand out leaflets outside, but they can’t physically go into the event and drown out the speaker’s voice in a way that the speaker can no longer be heard,” he added.

There were about 150 people sitting in the courtroom when the verdict was read. The names of all 10 students charged were read for the first charge, followed by a guilty verdict, before the same with the second charge.

This case involved the question of First Amendment rights and censorship, with each side arguing that they were practicing their First Amendment rights while the other tried to censor them.

The students were each charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of disturbing a meeting.

During the speech by Ambassador Michael Oren, 11 students stood up and, one by one, shouted scripted statements while Oren tried to speak. Oren was eventually able to deliver his 25-minute speech.

"It's a sad day for democracy," said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), on KPCC's "AirTalk." "This is just a travesty of justice that students cannot protest within their campuses."

Al-Marayati said the protests should have been handled by the school, not the courts, but that "the politicized nature" of the conflict between Israel and Muslims over the issue of Palestine led to the prosecution. Al-Marayati said that prosecutors were "using whatever technicality they were able to use, in terms of disruption of the peace."

"I think this does not bode well for students who want to speak out," Al-Marayati said, "and we want more students to speak out, even if it defies the authorities of our country and the authorities of the world."

Al-Marayati said that it doesn't make sense that protests of UC tuition hikes were not prosecuted while this was. He said that he thinks the line should be drawn at violence or destruction of property, but that this protest did not cross that line.

Al-Marayati said that you can go and heckle the president of the United States and be escorted out, and that it would probably be OK to heckle other ambassadors, but that these students were prosecuted because they were protesting the Israeli Ambassador.

"There was a conspiracy to disrupt the event. It wasn't a spontaneous shriek or disruption," said David A. Lehrer, president of Community Advocates and former head of the Anti-Defamation League. Lehrer argued that the prosecution was justified. "There was a concerted effort to try and cover up afterwards, and lie about it."

According to Lehrer, there were emails that said "We won't get punished because the UCI police never do anything about this kind of thing, so don't worry about it." Lehrer said that the students say they're exercising their rights to free speech, but that they were blocking the rights of those in the audience listening and of the person speaking.

Lehrer encouraged listeners to watch video of the protesters' interruptions on YouTube. One version of the video is below:

Lehrer said that the host pleaded with the audience to engage in dialogue with Oren via question and answer after the speech. "These kids weren't interested. They wanted to interrupt."

Mustafa, a caller on KPCC's "AirTalk" who knows the Irvine 11, said that the verdict won't thwart efforts by UC Irvine Muslim students to protest any events that seem unjust.

"If Michael Oren came to UC Irvine again, I personally would do the exact same thing again," Mustafa said, "because it's not about the laws of America that say, 'Oh, you can't protest this, because it's disturbing the peace.' It's about achieving world peace and Michael Oren is not there to do something like that." Mustafa also said he would protest others who shared the same views as Oren.

"[The verdict is] not going to thwart our efforts to seek justice in Palestine and seek justice all over the world," Mustafa said. He said that, if not for these protesters, "no one would be talking about this case today."

"We need to show the world what we think about what's going on," Mustafa said.

The six-man, six-woman jury received the case about 4:25 p.m. Tuesday when attorneys finished two days of closing arguments. Attorneys made their opening statements to jurors Sept. 7.

Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner told jurors that the actions of the students, many of whom belong to the Muslim Student Union on campus, amounted to a "heckler's veto" of Michael Oren's Feb. 8, 2010, speech on the UCI campus.

Defense attorneys countered with free-speech arguments, claiming the students did not violate misdemeanor laws governing public meetings as prosecutors have alleged.

The students planned a protest mirroring one done at the University of Chicago in which students disrupted an appearance from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The students stood up, minutes apart from each other, and bellowed slogans at Oren such as "Michael Oren, you're a war criminal," followed by cheers from supporters. They capped it off with a loud, mass walkout of students.

Wagner argued that the rules of the meeting were spelled out when the students were admonished after the first couple of interruptions by UCI professor Mark Petracca and UCI Chancellor Michael Drake.

Wagner had to prove to jurors that the students were aware of the rules, conspired to break them and had no other outlet to carry out their protest.

Thirty-five minutes into the event, Oren was 2 minutes and 21 seconds into his speech due to all the interruptions, he said.

"I submit to you that is substantial interference with a meeting," he said. "The show could not go on."

Defense attorney Dan Mayfield argued that the protests altogether took about 4 minutes and 35 seconds, but added, "Let's call it five minutes."

The event was supposed to run from 5:30 to 7 p.m., but a private gathering with Oren and campus supporters went long, Mayfield said. He also argued that the students readily and without incident surrendered to campus police, and the walkout of all of the students' supporters happened just after 6:30 p.m., before the event was supposed to end, so Oren had time to finish his "canned speech."

Defense attorney Reem Salahi argued that the students were warned before the event that no disruptions would be tolerated, meaning they were effectively denied an outlet for their free-speech rights, which should lead to an acquittal.

Seven of the defendants are UC Irvine students — Mohamad Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23; Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, 23; Joseph Tamim Haider, 23; Mohammad Uns Qureashi, 19; Ali Mohammad Sayeed, 23; Osama Ahmen Shabaik, 22; and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina, 19.

Three defendants are UC Riverside students — Khalid Gahgat Akari, 19; Taher Mutaz Herzallah, 21; and Shaheen Waleed Nassar, 21.

Video from earlier this year of KPCC's Larry Mantle talking about the UC Irvine protests:

KPCC's Mike Roe, Andrea Wang and Lily Mihalik contributed to this report.