Home November 2011 Was Justice Served?

Was Justice Served?

Nineteen months after a group of Muslim students shouted down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren when he attempted to speak at the University of California Irvine (UCI), ten of the eleven students were prosecuted in a court of law.  The ten students were convicted of two misdemeanors — of conspiring to disrupt and then disrupting Oren’s speech.
According to the court transcript, “The Irvine 11, eight students from UC Irvine and three from UC Riverside, were charged with conspiracy and disturbance of a meeting.  [On September 23] a jury found ten of them guilty.  [The eleventh obtained a plea bargain.]  Tony Rauckauckas…the Orange County district attorney…said his office prosecuted the students because of overwhelming evidence in e-mails, on video and from eyewitnesses.”
Did the district attorney do the right thing in pursuing crimimal charges, or should it have been left up to the schools to discipline the students, as UCI did?  Was the sentence appropriate?  How should the First Amendment be interpreted?  Will Jewish students feel more comfortable at UCI, or will the Muslim students get support by claiming that the Irvine 11 were victims?  These questions have been hotly debated.
Rauckauckas claimed that the incident that transpired in February of 2010 “was a conspiracy developed over time to shut down the Israeli ambassador from speaking” and thus “a serious challenge to freedom of speech.”  He added that “a California law says that it’s unlawful to disrupt a lawful meeting.  In this case…it was a freedom of speech issue, because here it was a case of this group saying that the speaker would not be allowed to speak.”
According to Rauckauckas, “We are talking about one group of individuals determining who can speak and what can be said on a university campus.  So they did, in fact, make a censorship decision.”  He also said that he felt that there was “evidence of a conspiratorial plan to shut down the speaker.”
While Rauckauckas said his office had video evidence, hundreds of eyewitnesses and an e-mail chain that clearly proved conspiracy, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UCI believes that the students should be punished by the university and that there was no need for criminal prosecution.  Chemerinsky said that the Irvine 11 “unquestionably acted improperly” and “engaged in a concerted effort to silence Oren and drive him from the podium,” thus violating the First Amendment guarantee of free speech to Ambassador Oren.
According to Chemerinsky, “There’s no free speech right to disrupt an event…It’s not a matter of free speech because there’s no free speech right to shut someone down…The students violated California law, which makes it a misdemeanor offense to disrupt a public meeting.  The jury which found them guilty faithfully applied this law to the facts of the case, but the fact that conduct violates a law does not mean that it should be prosecuted.”
He said that the Muslim Student Union had been suspended from operating on campus for a quarter and that the UCI students involved in the Oren incident had been suspended and ordered to do many hours of community service.  “These were significant punishments and there was no need for additional sanctions, let alone criminal prosecutions,” he said.  “Although campus demonstrations are common, rarely have they led to criminal charges or convictions.  Unless there is harm to persons or property – or a serious threat of this – district attorneys are almost always content to leave discipline to school authorities.  This is exactly what Rauckauckas should have done.  No one was hurt, and no property was damaged.  After the disruptive students were escorted away, Ambassador Oren finished his speech.  The students acted wrongly, and they were punished by the campus; there was no need for anything more.”
In a letter to the Orange County Register (September 27), Chemerinsky said, “Instead, 10 students now have criminal convictions on their records.  A matter which should have been put to rest 18 months ago has become a continuing source of division on campus and in the community.  Reports of the reactions in the courtroom and the comments about the verdict in the media show how deep emotions are on both sides of this issue.  This prosecution has attracted national and even international attention.  It has made martyrs of students who behaved wrongly, but who don’t deserve to be criminals.  It has unnecessarily spent taxpayer dollars on a criminal case and on the certain appeals.  It deepened wounds that will be difficult to heal.”
Alan M. Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University, strongly disagreed.  “No reputable constitutional scholar would defend the right of students to conspire to prevent an invited speaker from presenting his speech,” he said.  “Most universities have rules prohibiting the ‘heckler’s veto’ from silencing an invited speaker.  Yet, because the students in this case were Muslims who were trying to prevent an Israeli diplomat from speaking, many on the hard left are making heroes of these ten censors, and villains of prosecutors who did their duty in protecting the First Amendment.  Even the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is supposed to protect the First Amendment right of speakers, came down on the wrong side of this issue.”
Dershowitz claimed that although the UCI students had already been disciplined by the university, the students wore that discipline “as a red badge of courage,” that “they have been treated as heroes” and the “slap on the wrist” discipline has not kept them or other students from “conspiring to silence other controversial speakers, especially those who try to make the case for Israel.”
Thus, he said, “It was imperative that a public prosecutor apply the law to these students, because to do otherwise would be to tolerate, if not encourage, conduct that would undercut the constitutional rights of an invited speaker…It is entirely just that these students should have a criminal record and that the world should know that they tried to prevent the exercise of First Amendment rights because they disagreed with the content of an invited speaker’s remarks.  They should be made to pay a heavy price for their criminal conduct.”
Irvine-based writer E. Scott Menter said in his blog (blog.writerofwrongs.net), “There is no question justice was done.  The students broke the law and were arrested, tried by a jury and properly convicted.  But in his main argument that Rauckaukas should have exercised his discretion to avoid filing charges in the first place, Chemerinsky is correct.”
Menter believes that had there not been a trial, there would be no “op-eds in national and international journals,” “speaking engagements before crowded mosques,” “fundraising letters hinting darkly at the justice-perverting power of ‘the Israel lobby’” or “new martyrs inspiring the enemies of Israel and America.”  According to Menter, “In exchange for the dim comfort offered by the convictions, we have handed our enemies two invaluable assets: a cause célèbre and a set of attractive young icons.  If this is victory, it is a Pyrrhic one at best.”
According to Rauckauckas, however, “History tells us of the dire consequences when one group is allowed to shout down and intimidate another or a group of people so as to not allow them to have opinions or be heard.  History requires us to draw a line in the sand against this sort of organized thuggery.”  A

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