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Orange County DA shouldn't go after UCI students, protesters say

February 1, 2011 |  7:33 pm

More than 50 protesters – some with masking tape over their mouths -- rallied in front of the Orange County district attorney’s office on Tuesday, objecting to subpoenas and a grand jury investigation that could lead to criminal charges against 11 students who interrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador last year.

The Muslim Student Union, which denied planning the interruptions, was suspended for one year and some have criticized their method of protest, but the “Irvine 11” have gained widespread support from students, civil libertarians, religious leaders and even a top UC Irvine administrator who said that university sanctions were sufficient and that the district attorney should stop meddling.

“These students aren’t criminals, they shouldn’t have their lives ruined by criminal charges at this point,” said Carol Sobel, an attorney who has worked with the “Irvine 11” and represents the other six students who were subpoenaed. “And we should all move forward.”

The Feb. 8, 2010, incident sparked a debate about free speech at the campus after a group of students interrupted a talk by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador. Oren was shouted down repeatedly, and supporters cheered as students were escorted away by police.

It was one of the first instances in recent memory where the school recommended the ban of a student group for an action other than hazing or alcohol abuse.

Reem Salahi, an attorney who has represented the 11 students, said a handful of students have asked her about the implications of protesting.

"It’s very terrifying that students feel that they can’t even protest,” she said. “That goes against the very grain of democracy.”

The district attorney’s office declined comment. The office has one year after the event to file charges.

At the protest Tuesday in Santa Ana, people held signs that read, “Don’t criminalize my classmates.”

Hamza Siddiqui, a UC Irvine senior and an organizer of the protest, worries about the long-term effects of criminal charges on the students, many of whom he considers close friends. Some are graduate students and potential medical students.

“These students are super bright kids, and this has the possibility of really messing up their futures,” he said.

Criminalizing protests like the one at UC Irvine could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and make such dissent unacceptable, Siddiqui said.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s law school, said the issue is not about free speech or expression but about appropriate punishment.

“I think university discipline is sufficient for this,” he said.

Chemerinsky said there is no 1st Amendment right to go into an event and keep it from happening.  “I favor them being punished by the university because what they did was wrong,” he said.

Sobel said the nation has a history of heckling.  “It happens at City Council meetings all the time,” she said.

RELATED:

UC Irvine seeks to suspend Muslim student group

UC Irvine shortens but won't lift campus ban on Muslim group

UCI students who protested Israeli ambassador likely to face grand jury probe

--Nicole Santa Cruz in Santa Ana

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