SANTA ANA — An Orange County judge issued a gag order Friday in the misdemeanor criminal trial of 11 college students accused of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson said that he did not want potential jurors to have preconceived ideas about the case involving the so-called "Irvine 11." His gag order applies to both the prosecution and to the defense.
On May 3, defense attorneys representing the defendants filed a motion that aimed to silence prosecutors, claiming that Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner and representatives from the district attorney's office were tainting the jury pool with public statements.
Attorneys for the defendants objected to a protective order being placed against them, with one attorney saying their clients "are not similarly situated" with the D.A.'s office, and therefore should not be subjected to the same limitations.
Attorneys for the 11 also requested that the court mandate the D.A.'s office remove other information relating to the case from its website, including removal of press releases and e-mails among the defendants that could be submitted to the court later as evidence. The judge denied the request, saying that there is no need to "go back and sanitize" what has already been released.
The defendants, affiliated with Muslim student groups at UC Irvine and UC Riverside, are accused of conspiring to interrupt and then disrupting a Feb. 8, 2010, speech by Ambassador Michael Oren at UCI. The trial begins Aug. 15. If convicted, the defendants face up to six months in jail.
Wilson said he does not want to wait until jury selection to find to what extent jurors in the pool may have been tainted. The case has resulted in an outpouring of support from free-speech advocates, including many UCI faculty members, who say the students are being wrongly prosecuted. The defendants also have their critics, including prominent Jewish leaders who say they support free speech but felt like the students' allegedly premeditated disruption crossed a line.
Among those who appeared in court to listen to court proceedings at the Santa Ana courtroom was Jim Gilchrist, the founder and president of the Minuteman Project. Gilchrist, who organization uses civilians to "guard" the Mexico-U.S. border from illegal intrusion, said he was interested in the case because it related to 1st Amendment free speech rights.
"We need to set ground rules," Gilchrist said, adding that he was "victimized" by people interrupting speeches he's given across the country.
"Louis Farrakhan could speak [to me]," Gilchrist said. "You don't stop people from speaking … I want to talk to the accused and see their point of view."
Another motion discussed was whether to release the transcript of the initial grand jury, which examined whether there was enough evidence for the 11 defendants to stand trial. Both sides are scheduled to appear back in court May 26 to discuss whether or not to unseal those transcripts.