SANTA ANA — An Orange County Superior Court jury on Friday convicted 10 of the so-called Irvine 11 on two misdemeanor charges to conspire and then disrupt a February 2010 speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine.
Charges against one defendant had been tentatively dismissed, pending completion of 40 hours of community service at the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa.
The remaining 10 were sentenced to three years of informal probation and 56 hours of community service.
The verdict in the closely watched free-speech case won praise from Jewish organizations, who felt that the defendants had impeded Oren's right to speak, and derision from Muslim organizations who argued that the district attorney was trying to chill their right to political free speech.
Some audience members wept as the verdict was read in Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson's courtroom. The students showed no visible emotion, although they hugged each other afterward. Some of the defendants' supporters stormed out.
In a case that garnered national attention over free-speech rights, the trial centered on conflicting views of who was being censored. Prosecutors argued that Oren was "shut down" when his speech was interrupted by students who took turns shouting preplanned phrases in a crowded UC Irvine ballroom.
Six defense attorneys argued that the students, seven from UCI and three from UC Riverside, were only following the norm of other college protests and were being singled out.
University administrators disciplined some of the students involved and suspended the campus Muslim Student Union, whose members participated in the protest, for an academic quarter. The group is still on probation.
The case also has drawn the attention of a wide range of groups, including Muslim and Jewish organizations and civil libertarians. The trial began Sept. 7.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine's Law School, has said that although freedom of speech is not an absolute right, university sanctions were enough for the students.
But he also added that he believes criminal sanctions go too far.
Chemerinsky said that "it makes no sense" to use such resources. "It's so minor."
Steven Shiffrin, a 1st Amendment expert with Cornell University, said he agrees that prosecution of the 10 students should not have gone this far, but said he is not surprised.
"I think it was prosecutorial grandstanding," he said. "Maybe it makes the prosecutor's office more popular, but if so, that's regrettable."
He said one of the 1st Amendment's central purposes is to protect dissent, and heckling is part of that "tradition."
Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said it was Oren's right to free speech that was violated.
"We happen to think that upholding the rights of the speaker and the audience was well worth" taxpayer dollars, said Wagner, who prosecuted the case. "If it chills unlawful conduct, I guess that's the idea."
Jewish group supports verdict
The group that hosted the event that sparked the Irvine 11 case praised the verdict, saying it would never support "hate speech."
"While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support 'hate speech,'" Shalom C. Elcott, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County, said Friday in a statement.
"The verdict reaffirms that the Muslim Student Union's planned and systematic use of disruptions to trample on the free speech of others crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance," he continued. "They crossed moral, social and intellectual lines of civility and tolerance."
But, he added, the verdict should be a jumping off point for discussion rather than divisiveness.
"They broke the law very clearly," he said.
He also said that claims that this is an example of Islamophobia go "too far."
"I think maybe, just maybe, this court verdict will prevent this from happening somewhere else," he said.
Muslim groups critical
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, disagreed, calling the ruling Islamophobia.
"This is the beginning of death of democracy in our country," he said.
He added that the verdict was a "direct blow" to Muslims in Orange County.
"This is clearly an indication that Muslims are permanent foreigners, at least in Orange County," he said.
Ameena Qazi of the Council on American Islamic Relations said he hoped there would be an appeal.
"I hope that this case goes forward and that free speech prevails at the end of the day," Qazi said. "At this point we're all losing, we're all losing our rights."
Interfaith, campus reaction
Sarah Halverson of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa decried the guilty verdicts.
"This has been a bad week for justice in our country," she said. "Friends, God is mourning today ... Orange County has become a challenging place to live — at best."
UCI officials said they handled the case with on-campus discipline, arguing that prosecution went too far.
"UC Irvine, which fully and actively supports the lawful expression of free speech, completed its disciplinary procedures in this matter last year and considered those sanctions sufficient," said school spokesman Rex Bossert. "We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view."
Aminah Galal, 22, vice president of the Muslim Student Union at UCI, crowded around a computer with about five other students to read the verdict on screen.
"It was a shock," she said. "I think we were all speechless."
She said it's too early to tell what impact the case could have on campus.
"We're all trying to get our heads around what's going on," she said, adding that it could motivate people to educate others regarding the Palestinian conflict.
— Los Angeles Times Staff Writers Nicole Santa Cruz and Mike Anton and Daily Pilot Staff Writer Lauren Williams compiled this report
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun