An Unnecessary Trial

Last Saturday, Orange County judge Peter Wilson put an end to a UC legal saga that had all the hallmarks of a court drama: police, free speech, protests and Middle Eastern politics. The bad news: As of approximately 2 p.m. on Sept. 24, 10 UC students now have criminal records for disrupting a speech. The good news: It could have been worse. The students — charged with the misdemeanors of “conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting” and “disruption of a public meeting” — faced jail time, and ended with sentences of community service and fines instead. But while 56 hours of community service is a relief compared to a year behind bars, it’s a shame that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas saw the need to prosecute in the first place — after the university had already punished the students.

Let’s rewind. In February 2010, 11 students at UC Irvine were arrested for disrupting a speech on U.S.-Israeli relations given by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. The students — now labeled the “Irvine 11,” though charges against one were dropped — interrupted Oren’s speech and accused him of “propagating murder” and being “an accomplice to genocide” before being escorted out of the building by police. (Oren spoke at UCSD prior to the incident at Irvine; though he was met with protesters, they mostly stayed outside the building and there were no notable disruptions.)

After an investigation, the university discovered that the protest was planned by the UCI Muslim Student Union. The university suspended the MSU, disciplined the students in question and passed the case along to Rackauckas.

Here’s where the case gets caught up in legal niceties, with, ironically, both sides claiming censorship. The Irvine 11 claimed they were merely exercising their constitutional rights, while the prosecution, and free speech experts such as Dean of UCI Law Erwin Chemerinsky, said that the First Amendment does not protect behavior that infringes on other people’s rights. According to Rackauckas, the person censored in the Irvine 11 case was not any of the students, but Oren himself. There are methods of protesting that don’t silence the person speaking, but the students interrupted Oren’s speech to the point where he was unable to continue. Given this, evidence of MSU emails planning the event and video of UCI officials pleading with the students, it’s not surprising that the jury decided on a guilty verdict.

In the aftermath of the verdict, defense attorney Lisa Holder has announced plans to appeal, according to the Jewish Journal, but the heart of the issue is not necessarily the inns and outs of the First Amendment but the, as Chemerinsky told the Los Angeles Times, “terrible mistake” of prosecuting the case. Yes, the students definitely broke university protocol and probably crossed a line. Yes, it may be debatable whether they are protected under free speech. But the decision to prosecute them is an example of inconsistency that hurts everyone. UCI administrators had already punished the students and their organization, so there was little need to escalate the consequences. Many college students continually take actions that would technically be labeled a misdemeanor in court, but because their cases don’t involve high-profile politicians and highly controversial issues, they don’t become a lesson in not crossing important people. Ultimately, there’s little to be gained for anyone in the decision to pursue the case and the decision to burden a bunch of 20-somethings with criminal records for life.