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Both sides agree, Irvine verdict sends message to campus activists

A member of the Muslim Student Union disrupts a February 2010 speech by Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. (StandWithUs)

(JTA) — The misdemeanor convictions of 10 California college students for disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States is already leading partisans of both sides on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to predict changes in the way the fight over the issue plays out on campus.

“When you talk to students across college campuses, now they are pondering what is legal and what is not,” said Kifah Shah, the spokeswoman of a solidarity group for the guilty students, Stand With the Eleven. “This has a chilling effect.”

In February 2010, 11 Muslim students stood one by one and interrupted a speech by Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. Oren twice walked off the stage as students shouted “Mass murderer!” and “War criminal!” before being removed from the room by campus police. A planned question-and-answer session following the address was dropped.

Last week, an Orange County jury found 10 Muslim students guilty of two misdemeanor charges for conspiring to disrupt a meeting and then disrupting the speech. They were sentenced to community service and probation. Charges against the 11th student were dropped last month.

During the trial, prosecutor Dan Wagner described the students as “censors” who utilized the “heckler’s veto.”

“This is about freedom of speech,” Wagner said in his closing statement. “That’s why we’re all here.”

Some supporters of Israel express hope that the verdict will make campus protesters think twice before disrupting Israeli speakers, which has become a common tactic of pro-Palestinian activists.

In 2009, hecklers at the University of Chicago repeatedly disrupted a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Last November, activists from Jewish Voice for Peace shouted and unfurled banners during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans. Six months later, a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist yelled at Netanyahu from the visitors’ gallery during his address to a joint meeting of Congress.

Most recently, a Sept. 1 performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was interrupted repeatedly by protesters at London’s Royal Albert Hall, forcing the BBC to stop its broadcast of the concert.

At UC Irvine, the campus Muslim Student Union, which organized the heckling, was suspended for a year by the school for violating its code of conduct, though four months later the suspension was changed to probation on appeal. A year after the disruption of Oren’s speech, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office pressed charges against the students who were involved.

The Orange County Jewish Federation & Family Services in Southern California issued a statement praising the jury’s verdict. Shalom Elcott, the federation’s CEO, said  the response by university administrators and the district attorney has had a positive effect on the campus climate.

“It has already had a significant impact on campuses,” he said. “I think it has already created a situation on campus where other student groups have to be more careful about their behavior. It is creating more civil behavior.”

The protesters’ supporters, however, have accused the prosecutor of trying to suppress political speech. Muslim groups blasted the verdict against the students.

“It’s a sad day for democracy when nonviolent protestors are criminalized by their government and are found guilty for exercising a constitutional right,” Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said in a statement.

Many Jewish groups say, however, that it is Jewish students who are having their rights trampled upon and pro-Israel speakers who have had their free speech curtailed on campus.

In the wake of the second intifada, pro-Palestinian activism began to rise on campuses across the United States, and at some, like UC Irvine, manifested itself in anti-Semitic speakers, vandalism and — some Jewish groups say — a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students.

“Students felt harassed and intimidated,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice. “The hostility was so severe that people feared for their physical safety on the campus.”

Pro-Israel groups responded with a string of new tactics. They pumped money into campus activism, urged university administrators to stand up against anti-Semitism and, in some instances, took legal action.

In May, a Jewish student at the University of California, Berkeley, accused the university of allowing “a dangerous anti-Semitic climate.” Earlier this month, the Israeli legal activist group Shurat HaDin sent letters to hundreds of college presidents reminding them of their legal responsibilities to combat anti-Semitism.

The 10 students convicted on charges of disrupting Oren’s speech were sentenced by Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson to 56 hours of community service and three years of probation, though the probation will be reduced to one year if they complete their community service by Jan. 31. Wilson said that jail time was not warranted because the students were “motivated by their beliefs and did not disrupt for the sake of disrupting.”

Advocates for the students vow to appeal the convictions.

The prosecutor’s decision to pursue charges against the students was criticized as well by some who found their disruption objectionable.

The dean of UC Irvine’s law school, Erwin Chemerinsky, told The Los Angeles Times that the prosecution of the students was “divisive” and that their convictions were “harsh,” though he also said, “It’s not a matter of free speech because there’s no free speech right to shut someone down.”

Elcott said that the Muslim Student Union’s campus suspension and now the jury’s conviction yielded only “short-term gains” in terms of quelling a hostile campus atmosphere.

“The only way for long-term gains is through dialogue, as difficult as that is,” he said.

Meanwhile, according to Elcott and other Jewish activists, the environment at UC Irvine has changed for the better in recent years because of a more sympathetic administration willing to address their concerns and advocacy training for students.

“I’ve never felt any hostility on campus,” said Ryan Jenner, a third-year student and the president of Anteaters for Israel, the campus pro-Israel group that co-sponsored Oren’s original appearance on campus. The group plans to bring a gay Israeli soldier to speak to students in October.

“Jewish life has never been better,” he said, “and the general climate has improved dramatically.”