‘Irvine 11’: 10 students sentenced to probation, no jail time
Ten Muslim students found guilty of conspiring to disrupt -– and then disrupting –- a speech at UC Irvine by Israel's ambassador were sentenced Friday afternoon to three years informal probation. They will not serve any jail time.
The verdict was an emotional end to the so-called Irvine 11 case, which generated national debate over free speech.
"Absolutely unbelievable. I believe the heart of America has died today," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "This is clearly an indication that Muslims are permanent foreigners, at least in Orange County."
Jewish community leaders lauded the guilty verdicts.
The planned disruption "crossed the moral, social and intellectual line of civility and tolerance," said Shalom C. Elcott, president and chief executive of the local Jewish Federation & Family Services. "While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support 'hate speech.' "
Outside the court, the mother of Khalid Bahgat Akari, one of the 10, said the verdict shocked her. Lina Akari, 45, of Murrieta, said she had trusted the U.S. court system and had raised her son to relish the right to free speech.
Before the trial, charges against one defendant were tentatively dismissed pending completion of 40 hours of community service at a soup kitchen. But the other 10 went on trial Sept. 11 before large, at times noisy, crowds in Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson's courtroom.
The case centered on conflicting views of who was being censored -- Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, who had been invited to the campus, or the students who took turns shouting him down as he tried to give a speech on U.S.-Israeli relations before more than 500 spectators in February 2010.
Prosecutors contended the students broke the law by organizing in emails and meetings to disrupt Oren's speech. Defense attorneys argued that a guilty verdict in the case would stifle student activism at colleges nationwide. They likened their clients actions to the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez.
University administrators disciplined some of the students involved and suspended the campus Muslim Student Union, some of whose members participated in the protest, for an academic quarter.
The university "considered those sanctions sufficient," UCI spokesman Rex Bossert said. "We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view."
Legal scholars such as Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, agreed with the university's punishment noting that speech used to squelch another's 1st Amendment right is not constitutionally protected.
But he and others were critical of Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas bringing criminal misdemeanor charges against the so-called Irvine 11. Critics called the charges political grandstanding over a nonviolent event which stoked the flames of a controversy that seemed to have died down months ago.
"It's unnecessary and it's harmful. It's unnecessarily divisive," Chemerinsky said Friday. "Now this keeps it an open wound."
He said the students had, indeed, broken the law.
"There's no free speech right to disrupt an event," he said. But he added, "I think it's a shame that they now have misdemeanor convictions."
-- Nicole Santa Cruz, Lauren Williams and Mike Anton in Orange County
Photo: Several of the Muslim students found guilty of disrupting a speech at UC Irvine. They were sentenced to probation Friday. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times