By: Sahar Jahani
On February 4th, 2011 Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced charges against a group of eleven Muslim students who interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech as a form of protest at UC Irvine last year.
This is the latest chapter in the Irvine 11 case that has sparked a national debate about first amendment rights.
“I am deeply disappointed and very upset by the DA’s decision to file charges. There is absolutely no basis for criminal charges against these students; they participated in a form of protest that is embedded in the fabric of American society,” said Reem Salahi, the civil rights attorney who has been working on the case.
According to the DA’s press release, all eleven students, three of whom attended UC Riverside at the time, were charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of the disturbance of a meeting.
Although the students were arrested during the speech and have faced punishment from the University administration, the DA has persisted with the charges.
“There was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI. This is a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution,” stated Rackauckas,
The arraignment is set for March 11, 2011 and if convicted, the students face sentences of up to 6 months in jail, probation, community service or fines, charges that can have serious consequences for these students’ futures as they apply for jobs or graduate school.
Members of various communities have spoken out against this decision. Most recently, Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that advocates coalition building among Israelis and Palestinians, hand-delivering a petition in support of the Irvine 11 to the DA’s office on Wednesday, February 9th.
The petition has been signed by approximately 5,000 individuals who testify that they too have committed the similar crime of interrupting a speaker or event to make a political point. The individuals who signed the petition asked the District Attorney to “charge them too” if interrupting injustice is now considered a crime.
The petition was accompanied by a letter of support from the JVP Rabbinical Council, signed by fourteen Rabbis and Rabbinical students from around the country.
“We urge the District Attorney’s office of Orange County to immediately stop efforts to criminalize the actions of these Muslim students who, in the long-standing tradition of non-violent activism for social justice, protested the speech of the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren” the letter read.
As for UC Irvine’s stance in this case, soon after the decision was announced, university administration sent an email to the student body, announcing the DA’s decision and emphasizing UC Irvine’s neutrality towards the District Attorney’s actions.
“The District Attorney’s announcement reflects action independent of the University. He has subpoena power and access to information that we do not. From our perspective we thoroughly and fairly investigated and adjudicated the matter last year. Conduct violations were addressed fully, consistent with the guidelines of the Student Code of Conduct,” wrote Cathy Lawhon, the Interim Executive Director of Communications at UC Irvine.
The administration’s position is considered extremely disappointing by some.
“They continue to play the neutral card and distance themselves from the students. Rather than protect their academic integrity, the school has done whatever to not get blamed, and has remained completely silent,” said Hamza Siddiqui, a student at UC Irvine.
As the arraignment date approaches, supporters of the Irvine 11 are asking the community at large to spread the word about an online petition which denounces the treatment of these students. They are also asking letters of support to be sent directly to the office of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.