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Protesters who disrupted Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine charged by prosecutors

February 4, 2011 |  5:30 pm

The Orange County district attorney’s office on Friday charged 11 defendants with conspiring to disrupt a meeting and a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at UC Irvine last year.

The move comes after about 50 protesters rallied in front of the Orange County district attorney’s office Tuesday. Though some have criticized the students’ method of protest, many said that university punishment was sufficient enough for the “Irvine 11,” as the students came to be known.

In a statement, Orange County Dist. Atty.Tony Rackauckas said the case was filed because of an “organized attempted to squelch the speaker.” He also said the students “meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting.”

“We must decide whether we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy,” he said. “We cannot tolerate a pre-planned violation of the law, even if the crime takes place on a school campus and even if the defendants are college students. In our democratic society, we cannot tolerate a deliberate, organized, repetitive and collective effort to significantly disrupt a speaker who hundreds assembled to hear.”

The Muslim Student Union, which denied planning to obstruct the speech, was suspended by the university. It was one of the first instances in recent memory in which the school recommended the ban of a student group for an action other than hazing or alcohol abuse. Individual students were also disciplined by the university.

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

The students are accused of meeting with other members of the Muslim Student Union to discuss options to respond to the speech as far out as six days before the event.

According to prosecutors, students circulated e-mails and held multiple meetings to plan the disruption of the speech. One of the students is accused of sending an e-mail to the MSU-UCI message board announcing that “we will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador’s speech.”

Approximately 500 to 700 people had assembled for the meeting, authorities say.

Eight of the defendants are students at UC Irvine and the other three were students at UC Riverside. Each is charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of the disturbance of the meeting. If convicted, they could be fined and/or sentenced to probation with community service or six months in jail.

The students will be arraigned March 11 in Santa Ana.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz