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Four of the Muslim defendants pray outside the Central Justice Center after all 10 students were found guilty of conspiring to disrupt and then disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine last year. Eight of the ten students were present for the verdict. The other two had permission by the court to be out of town. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times / September 24, 2011)

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."

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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."