The Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) officially charged 11 UC students with two misdemeanor counts in connection to a controversial protest that occurred on the UC Irvine campus last year.
The incident occurred February 8th, 2010, when Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren was the featured speaker at a meeting co-sponsored by multiple organizations including Anteaters for Israel, UCI’s School of Law, Department of Political Science, and Center for the Study of Democracy.
According to an OCDA press release, the 11 defendants were charged with two misdemeanor counts of disturbing and conspiring to disrupt a meeting during a speech by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.
The defendants charged are pro-Palestinian student protesters. Eight are students at UCI and three are students at UC Riverside.
Since the incident the protesters have been known as the Irvine 11.
In a video recorded at the event, the 11 arrested students are seen individually disrupting Ambassador Oren’s speech on 11 different occasions accusing him of propaganda and war crimes. These actions prompted one faculty member to plead over the microphone for civil behavior saying, “I’ve been a faculty member here for 26 years, this is no way for our undergraduate students to behave.”
After the 11 separate interruptions, the majority of pro-Palestinian student protesters exited the facility. Some angry members of the audience heckled the students, yelling racial slurs and giving middle fingers.
In the weeks following the protest, the Irvine 11 received overwhelming support from the faculty and Associated Students at UCI, denouncing the arrests as a violation of the protester First Amendment rights. Students and faculty from UC campuses at San Diego, Los Angeles and Berkeley also publicly expressed their support in favor of the student’s right to protest.
The events in Irvine received national media attention. Major news outlets covered the story and President Obama commented on the Irvine 11 when asked at a town hall-style meeting.
“Peaceful protest is part of the American tradition we are proud of,” said Obama. “And that’s hard too, standing in the midst of people who disagree with you and letting your voice be heard.”
But the manner in which the protesters interrupted the speech ultimately barred Ambassador Oren from making his entire speech. Because of this, the protesters may not be protected by the First Amendment.
“What they did was not constitutionally protected. The speaker who was there had the right to speak and those who were attending had the right to hear him,” said Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition. “The protesters had a right too, but they can’t do it in a way that suppresses someone else’s right to free speech.”
When asked about his opinion on the proper punishment for the 11 charged, Sheer felt the OCDA is being too extreme.
“I could understand some kind of administrative or academic punishment but criminal prosecution is overkill,” he said.
Members of the Palestinian and Muslim communities are claiming that the prosecution of the Irvine 11 is a part of an anti-Palestinian and Muslim attitude coming out of Irvine.
Many of the protesters are members of the Muslim Student Union which has been put on probation for several quarters by the UCI administration.
“I was shocked to discover how this particular incident had played out” said Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian citizen and journalist who has extensively reported on Israeli–Palestinian conflicts in Gaza. “I have heard about pro-Palestinian protesters being silenced, harassed and prevented from demonstrating. There is a long history of that, but never prosecuted.”
Since the incident, the Stand with the Eleven Campaign has been organized to mobilize community support and raise awareness about the Irvine 11.
Marya Bangee from the Stand with the Eleven Campaign said that this is not the first time Palestinian students have protested against Ambassador Oren. Bangee explained that many Palestinians strongly oppose Ambassador Oren because of his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in the Middle East.
“He was head of media relations for Israel during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ which was a military conflict 2 years ago where almost 1,500 Palestinians died, and only 13 Israeli soldiers died” said Bangee. “Oren has portrayed Israel as a victim to the U.S. The students wanted to prove that you can’t spin what Israel has done.”
Bangee also emphasized the importance of free speech at universities.
“College campuses have always been the center of social protest, especially in California on UC campuses,” she said.
Both Bangee and El-Haddad hope more students become aware of the impact of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
“Students need to be concerned and aware about the amount of unrestricted American tax dollars that are being spent on Israel and the Middle East,” said El-Haddad.
The incidents at UCI demonstrate how Middle Eastern affairs are becoming more prevalent to American campuses and students. Earlier this year, controversy arose on the UC Santa Barbara campus when an annual display sponsored by the UCSB student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) displayed a large sign on campus featuring the death toll of Operation ‘Cast Lead’ upsetting some Jewish faculty and students.
If convicted, the Irvine 11 each face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines up to six months in jail. They are scheduled to be arraigned on the charges March 11, 2011 at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.