SANTA ANA — Ten Muslim college students censored the Israeli ambassador to the United States when he tried to give an address atUC Irvine, a prosecutor argued in closing statements of the so-called Irvine 11 trial on Monday.
Orange County Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said the protesters interfered with Ambassador Michael Oren's right to free speech by temporarily disrupting his February 2010 campus address.
"Who is the censor in this case?" he asked the jury. "Right there — 10 of them."
Wagner said actions by the sevenUC Irvine and three UC Riverside students amounted to a "heckler's veto."
"This is about freedom of speech," Wagner said. "This is why we're all here."
Defense attorneys also called on Constitutional protections in their closing arguments, saying the district attorney was chilling political speech by prosecuting the protesters after the fact.
In her closing statements, defense attorney Reem Salahi said that while politeness works "when you visit your grandmother," such courtesy isn't necessary in a university setting, where ideas are freely exchanged.
To make a point about the defendants' shouting during Oren's speech, defense attorney Dan Mayfield stood at the back of the large courtroom and shouted to jurors, saying that the university ballroom was three to four times the size of the courtroom.
"Of course you speak loudly," Mayfield said.
The prosecution used pre-speech instructions from UCI administrators to argue that the students had ample opportunity to share their opinions but they chose instead to break the law.
"Yes, protesters have a longstanding tradition on campuses, we all know that," Wagner said, adding that the law also protects a "marketplace of ideas." "Truth will win in a competitive atmosphere. To commit censorship breaks down that marketplace."
He also played for jurors a video of the moderator explaining audience rules prior to Oren's address.
"We expect and we relish spirited discussion, but we also have the highest expectations for civility and respect — we expect nothing less," the moderator said in the video. "This is after all not the street corner, it is a university."
Orange County Superior Court was packed with about 200 spectators, including parents, student supporters, interfaith community members and teachers. More were turned away.
At times, the venue grew raucous, with supporters applauding arguments made by an Irvine 11 attorney.
Judge Peter J. Wilson issued a warning to quiet down but did not remove anyone from the courtroom.
Though referred to as the Irvine 11, criminal charges were tentatively dismissed against one student in July, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, who was expected to complete 40 hours of community service at a Costa Mesa soup kitchen.
The 10 remaining defendants are charged with two misdemeanors of conspiracy to willfully commit a crime and disrupt a public meeting. They face up to six months in jail, if convicted.
Closing arguments are scheduled to continue Tuesday. Afterward, the case will go the jury.
Muslim leaders: 'Political theater'
There was also debate outside of the courtroom. Leaders of various groups gathered for a news conference outside the Santa Ana Courthouse midday to condemn the actions of the Orange County district attorney's office in the case.
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, called the closing statements of the prosecutor "political theater."
"We patiently wait for the verdict and for justice to prevail," he said.
Others present at the news conference included representatives from the L.A. Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Institute of Orange County.
Saadia Kahn, the civic outreach coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said the district attorney's office has already set an "unhealthy precedent" for free speech on college campuses nationwide by prosecuting the students.
Estee Chandler, with the LA chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, criticized the prosecution's arguments and called the students "brave young activists."
She added that the case "could affect every American citizen's right to free speech."
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