Israeli ambassador prompts debate over campus free speech

March 1, 2011

IRVINE, Calif. (RNS) "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an
expression of free speech!"


And so began the protest of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's
lecture at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010, as the
shouting student, Osama Ahmed Shabaik, was escorted out of the
auditorium by police to cheers and jeers.


It didn't end there; in fact, the shouting at Oren's speech
continues to echo around Southern California and has sparked a
nationwide debate that's pitted Jews against Muslims, Jews against Jews,
and the district attorney against the students.


Oren's lecture was interrupted 10 more times by students who stood
up to shout that Oren -- a decorated veteran of the Israeli Defense
Forces -- was a "war criminal," "mass murderer," and "an accomplice to
genocide."


Now the 11 students face criminal charges for interrupting the
ambassador. The "Irvine 11" are scheduled to be arraigned on March 11,
and the case has prompted a fierce debate about free speech on campus.


Oren is no stranger to controversy, and his visits around the U.S.
have been plagued by protests -- at the University of Maryland, American
University in Washington and even the predominantly Jewish Brandeis
University -- ever since he became ambassador in May 2009.


At campuses across the country, tensions surrounding the volatile
Middle East have increasingly spilled over into nonviolent
demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by pro-Israel and
pro-Palestine student groups.


The case of the "Irvine 11" is different, though, because Orange
County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has charged them with criminal
conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting --
misdemeanor charges that attorney Jacqueline Goodman, who's representing
seven of the 11 students, called "unprecedented."


All 11 are members of the Muslim Student Union; eight are enrolled
at Irvine and three are enrolled at the University of California,
Riverside.


Rackauckas filed the charges just days before the statute of
limitations was due to expire. He's been supported by the pro-Israel
Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America.


Goodman said most cases involving disturbing the peace are not
usually prosecuted unless they included property damage, threats, or
violence.


"This is selective prosecution based on the contents of the speech
and that's illegal," she said. "He's prosecuting them based on the fact
that they've voiced an unpopular opinion, and that goes against
everything this country was founded upon."


Rackauckas' office has argued the criminal charges were meant to
protect free speech. "The only people whose rights were violated were
the speaker and the audience," said chief of staff Susan King.


But Goodman said the free speech argument was "disingenuous."


"The move does nothing to promote free speech, it only does the
opposite; it has a chilling effect on the future expression of unpopular
opinions," she said.


Reem Salahi, an attorney who represented the students in
administrative proceedings at both campuses and is now on their legal
defense team, argued that the DA's office was "overstepping" its bounds.


"They are charging these students because of who they are -- whether
that's their religious identities or ethnicity -- or they are charging
these students because of who the speaker was, the Ambassador of
Israel," said Salahi. "Or they've charged these students based on the
content of what they said, which was critical of Israeli policies,
sympathetic to Palestinians."


The students have drawn support from groups including Jewish Voice
for Peace, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Council on
American-Islamic Relations and the Progressive Faith Foundation.


Jewish Voice for Peace spearheaded a petition by 5,000 signatories
who say they, too, should face prosecution because they have disrupted
speeches, including one by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
last year.


A coalition of 30 community groups and individuals sent an open
letter to Rackauckas opposing his decision to file criminal charges, and
a petition opposing the charges was signed by at least 100 Irvine
faculty.