Does Freedom of Speech Apply to Muslim Students?


By Wafai Dias

Over the past years the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has consistently been reported in the American media. In 2009, Israel invaded Gaza in “Operation Cast Lead,” leaving over 1,400 Palestinians dead (Btselem Dec. 27, 2009.) When students at the University of California Irvine campus found out that the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren was going to give a speech at their University, they planned to protest his speech. On Feb. 8, 2010, 11 students stood up and one by one, at different times they confronted Oren with remarks such as “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech,” and “It is a shame that this University has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself.” All 11 of them were arrested right after they protested and were released after three hours. Out of the 11 students, 10 were found guilty by the Orange County Superior Courthouse of violating:

  • Section 403 of the Penal Code, disrupting an assembly or meeting, a misdemeanor, without authority of law, did willfully and unlawfully disturb and break up a lawful assembly and meeting
  • Section 182(a) (1) of the Penal Code (Conspiracy to commit a crime), a misdemeanor, they unlawfully conspired together to commit the crime of disturbing an assembly and meeting, in violation of section 403 of the penal code.

Three of the students were from UC’s Riverside campus. Dan Stromer, a lead attorney of the defendants stated that this misdemeanor law in California criminalized forms of political speech that are protected in the U.S. constitution(SouthernCalifornia Public Radio, “Irvine 11attorneys file appeal,” Oct. 19, 2011.) In their appeal the defense attorneys’ stated that the students were convicted on the basis of an unconstitutionally vague state law prohibiting the willful disturbance of meetings (Daily Pilot, “Muslim students appeal conviction,” Jan. 23, 2013.) This case also started a debate of whether the students’ or Oren’s free speech rights were violated, and also if the district attorney’s office should have filed criminal charges in the first place. (DailyPilot, “Muslim Students Appeal Conviction,”Jan. 23, 2013.) One of the 10 students, Osama Shabaik, stated that the group wanted to host a University of Chicago style protest (Uprising Radio, Two Irvine 11 Students Share Their Story, Sept. 29, 2011.) Earlier in 2009 when the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke at the University of Chicago over 30 attendees including students and community residents disrupted his speech (ABC 7 News, “Groups Protest Former Israeli PM’s speech,” Oct. 16, 2009.) However, none of these students or community members were arrested or charged with misdemeanors. In the “Irvine 11” case one of the students was dropped from all charges due to the DA’s inability to bring charges against him. He agreed to complete 40 hours of community service and accepted a plea bargain (Orange County Register, “Case Dismissed Against Muslim Student,” Oct. 7, 2011.) Reem Salahi one of the defendant’s lawyers stated, “These types of protests happen all the time. It is actually very rare, completely uncommon for individuals to be prosecuted under Penal Code 403. That’s exactly what happened in this case”(University of Southern California, “Irvine 11 Attorney Reem Salahi Speaks On Implications Of The Case Oct. 5, 2011.) She also stated that she believed that it was more of a case against the content of what they said versus conduct. The Muslim Students Union was suspended after the protest. Since the Irvine 11 included several board members of the organization the prosecutors used a subpoena and gained access to the student’s emails in which they later used as evidence to prosecute the students for conspiracy to disrupt a meeting (Orange County District Attorney Press Release, Sep, 23, 2011.) Since all of the 10 students have clean records the judge sentenced them to three years of informal probation, 56 hours of community service and a $270 fine for each to pay. As of now all of them are no longer on probation and their defense attorney’s have appealed the guilty verdict.

*Photo Credit – Irvine 11 Facebook page  (A supporter of the Irvine 11 wore a “Silenced” shirt, during a rally in support of the Irvine 11.)

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