Last Feb. 8, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to UC Irvine to give a speech. A group of students who have come to be known as the “Irvine 11” each took turns standing up during Oren’s speech to protest issues with the ambassador’s politics. An uproar occurred immediately thereafter, as participants and members of the audience both responded negatively and applauded in agreement. Eight UC Irvine students and two UC Riverside students had planned to shout 10 pre-planned comments. This occurred for the next 20 minutes of Oren’s speech. After each comment, the protestors walked out of their seats to waiting police officers.
One year later, after some of the dust had settled, the case has arisen once more. The Irvine 11 have been served to go to court on March 11 under charges of conspiracy. The prosecuted were given word of their summons to court this past Friday, Feb. 4. A grand jury has been convened by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, investigating potential further charges.
Jacqueline Goodman, the criminal defense lawyer who is defending MSU President Mohamed Abdelgany and Vice President Osama Shabaik as well as some of the others being prosecuted, says being brought to court is dangerous because of the threat to democracy it potentially poses.
“For a year, there has been a lot of dialogue and discussion and quite frankly, people have moved on,” Goodman said.
In a statement released by Interim Executive Director of Communications Cathy Lawhon, it seems the university holds similar sentiments.
“The DA’s actions are independent of the University,” Lawhon said. “From our perspective, we thoroughly and fairly investigated all of that last year. Conduct violations were addressed fully consistent with the code of student conduct and we have moved on.”
Yet questions of First Amendment rights still remain at the forefront, as Goodman claims this case is not a question of Israel versus Palestine, but rather an issue of who gets to say what.
“The DA decides what speech is free and not and this is dangerous to democracy,” Goodman said. “I am concerned with the prosecution based on content of speech. This is a misuse of discretion. This is selective prosecution designed to intimidate citizens from expressing an unpopular view. In a democracy, we do not allow a county prosecutor to decide which ideas get to be expressed. ”
The district attorney was not available for comment.
For president of Jewish Student Union of UCI Matan Lurey, the concern lies in the fact that the general public is focusing on the context of the protest rather than the actual charges.
“It seems like it has to do more with how they dealt with administration than with the actual protest,” Lurey said.
Weeks before the event, Lurey says, e-mail leaks let many on the MSU list serve know the protest was going to happen when Oren visited. Members of the Jewish Student Union went to administration and MSU to ask for this protest to be put aside, claims Lurey, but the 11 went ahead as planned.
“Politics aside, this act set a precedent where any speaker can be interrupted in this fashion,” Lurey said. “It is not constructive for an academic setting. Wanting to push your own political agenda shouldn’t be a reason for an unconstructive protest.”
The event sparked vigorous debate and discussion among much of the UCI community, especially the Muslim Student Union (members of the Irvine 11 were also members of the club), the JSU and Anteaters for Israel. Administration grappled with the controversy, as news sources such as the OC Register and the Los Angeles Times published stories and op-ed pieces that intimated the strongest of feelings from both sides of the argument.
“It’s a matter of principle,” Goodman said, speaking in context of the protest. “Some had family members that died in Gaza and if you look at the video [on YouTube] those in the audience are performing in a much less tactful way. One student is being charged for shouting ‘whose university?’ while members of the audience jeered, made slicing motions with their hands to their throats, etc. No death threats have been made, nor has property been damaged … There is quite a chilling effect felt by students if you’re going to have superiors coming down hard on you for speaking out.”
The accused will face misdemeanor charges in a month. In the meantime, the university makes a point that the most worthwhile lesson to be drawn from this event is a hope “to continue to build understanding and respectful, meaningful dialogue on campus.”