[UPDATED] 24 Civic and Faith Leaders Urge DA Tony Rackauckas to Drop Criminal Probe of Irvine 11

UPDATE, FEB. 3, 10 A.M.:

The

Los Angeles Times

this morning jumped on the "Free the Irvine 11" bandwagon by publishing an editorial under that headline. Criminal charges against the students "are not appropriate" and "would be overkill" and could result in "a punishment out of proportion to the offense," opines the

Times

Editorial Board, which concludes, "Now it's time to move on."

Of course, given Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' distrust of the Times, the editorial may tip his justice scale in favor of felonies.

Read the full editorial here.

Protesters unfurl a banner in Santa Ana Tuesday denouncing a criminal probe of the Irvine 11.
Protesters unfurl a banner in Santa Ana Tuesday denouncing a criminal probe of the Irvine 11.

Protesters unfurl a banner in Santa Ana Tuesday denouncing a criminal probe of the Irvine 11.
ORIGINAL POST, FEB. 3, 7:39 A.M.:

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Twenty-four civic and faith leaders have signed an open letter urging District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to stop pursuing felony charges against 11 students who disrupted a February 2010 speech at UC Irvine by Israel's ambassador to the U.S.

"It is difficult for us to put into words the extent to which this development disturbs the conscience and would disrupt the DA's ability to establish meaningful justice," states the letter from prominent legal and religious figures in Orange County and Southern California.

"Our vision for Orange County is that it be a place where all faith groups are treated with equal respect and due process of law, where no political viewpoint is penalized, and where all of our public officials and offices utilize their stations to promote these ends," continues the letter, which ends with a plea to Rackauckas, who was recently sworn in again as DA and has already announced his intention to seek reelection in 2014:

"We therefore request that you assist in ending what we believe to be an unnecessary and excessive response to the events of February 2010 by exercising your discretion to not indict the students on criminal charges."

Rackauckas, a Republican, may appreciate (or not) the letter borrowing from the 2010 GOP playbook by hitting him in the wallet and questioning his love of the U.S. Constitution. The message questions using tax dollars and limited public resources to pursue the investigation. It later notes, "Because the right to freely express oneself, particularly against government policies, is a cherished freedom protected by our Constitution, only in very narrow circumstances may these activities be subdued by state action."

Those signing the letter (which is presented in full on the next page) include: Eric Altman, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development; Salam Al-Maryati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council; Hussam Ayloush, executive director, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area; Issa Edah-Tally, president, Islamic Center of Irvine; and Shk. Muhammad Faqih, Islamic Institute of Orange County.

Also, the Reverend Sarah Halverson, Fairview Community Church; Jim Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyer's Guild, Los Angeles Chapter; the Reverend Darrell McGowan, senior pastor at First Christian Church of Fullerton; and Hector Villagra, incoming executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. Mike Penn, who was forman of the Orange County grand jury during the 2006-07 term, is also among the signers.

Michael Oren, an American-born Israeli scholar, author and Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was forced to pause his speech for 20 minutes on Feb. 8, 2010, due to multiple interruptions by students accusing Israel of crimes against humanity. Campus police arrested 11 students, most of whom were from UCI but some of whom came from UC Riverside. The university's Muslim Student Union, which claimed no part in the protest, was later punished with one year of probation and 100 hours of community service.


The UCI administration's treatment of the students and MSU has drawn criticism from supporters decrying censorship and foes who believe the students as well as those who believe they should be more severely punished, including some who want MSU permanently shut down on campus.

The most recent protest on the students' behalf was Tuesday afternoon in front of Rackauckas' Santa Ana office, where about 50 protesters gathered to blast the grand jury investigation of the so-called Irvine 11.


At the protest, which featured young Muslims with duct tape affixed over their mouths, Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, accused the DA of wasting the county's limited resources by reopening charges against the students. That contention is also made in the open letter to Rackauckas. Syed is also among the community leaders who signed the letter, which follows on the next page.
 

Feb. 2, 2011

An Open Letter

Mr. Tony Rackauckas
Orange County District Attorney
401 Civil Center Dr., Santa Ana, CA 92701

Dear Mr. Rackauckas:

It is with deep concern that we, Orange County community religious and civic leaders, write to you regarding the pursuance of felony criminal charges against students who verbally protested a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in February of 2010.

Earlier this month, we were distraught to learn that several Muslim students from UCI were subpoenaed to testify before an Orange County grand jury, which is almost exclusively impaneled to investigate or indict felonies. Based on this, and Mr. William J. Feccia's October 22, 2010 letter to interfaith leaders that confirmed that the OCDA was actively investigating the events of February 2010, we have strong reason to believe that your office is planning to indict with felonies some of the students who protested Ambassador Oren.

By writing this, we by no means seek to unreasonably interfere with the exercise of your prosecutorial discretion. But we feel it only appropriate to comment on what we feel would constitute a proper regard for justice.

As leaders whose activities substantially occur in Orange County, we are all too well acquainted with the criminal challenges our Orange County community faces. Members of our congregations or organizations are fraught by the increase in violent and property crime in some of Orange County's major cities, such as Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, and Orange that saw upwards of an eleven percent increase in violent crime in the first half of 2010, and Santa Ana and Anaheim that witnessed significant increases in property crime. We are therefore intimately interested in the proper use of our constituents' tax dollars and our county's limited resources. With so many of the above challenges, can the office of the OCDA seriously afford, in terms of money and staffing, to pursue charges against students who were involved in a university protest?

We fervently regret that the OCDA's investigation of the event has risen to the level of grand jury proceedings, and we have no alternative but to believe felony charges would be excessive. First, the students non-violently and verbally protested a university-invited ruptive manner than some of the counter-protesters, all of which is readily apparent from the video footage available online. Such protests are common to university campuses, where the exercise of free and dissident speech is the bedrock of our democratic process.

It is our understanding that the Muslim Student Union and possibly some of the involved students have already been reprimanded by the UCI administration. The events of February 8, 2010, occurred at UCI, at a UCI jointly-sponsored student and administration event, and the young people in question were or are students. Mr. Oren was able to finish his speech, the event concluded; the impact of the disturbance did not resound beyond the halls of that evening's event. While we acknowledge that crimes can and do occur on college campuses, we are hard-pressed to understand why a University-specific situation, which was thoroughly dealt with by UCI administration, would require the OCDA's reopening of the matter, particularly by investigating it as a felony crime.

As District Attorney, it is within your discretion to determine society's interests in seeking punishment of certain offenses. Over the years, there have been countless instances of non-violent protest activities during campus speeches, including at UCI, with no comparable criminal prosecution. By criminally prosecuting one set of protesters and not others, including the counter-protesters at the same event, who cursed, threatened and even assaulted the students, these indictments would be singular. Orange County citizens would understand from your office's actions that minority or disfavored groups receive a disproportionate and selective application of the law, while the integrity of the office of the OCDA as well as the justice system would be profoundly undermined.

Most importantly, indicting these students would have a severe chilling effect on the exercise of free speech on campuses and elsewhere. Because the right to freely express oneself, particularly against government policies, is a cherished freedom protected by our Constitution, only in very narrow circumstances may these activities be subdued by state action. At the same time, prosecuting these students may in fact lead to more disruptive and perhaps violent forms of political protests, since less non-violent and less disruptive protests would by this new precedent carry nearly the same criminal exposure.

It is difficult for us to put into words the extent to which this development disturbs the conscience and would disrupt the OCDA's ability to establish meaningful justice. Our vision for Orange County is that it be a place where all faith groups are treated with equal respect and due process of law, where no political viewpoint is penalized, and where all of our public officials and offices utilize their stations to promote these ends. We therefore request that you assist in ending what we believe to be an unnecessary and excessive response to the events of February 2010 by exercising your discretion to not indict the students on criminal charges.

Sincerely yours,

Eric Altman, Executive Director, Orange
County Communities Organized for
Responsible Development

Salam Al-Marayati, President, Muslim
Public Affairs Council

Chuck Anderson, President ACLU
Chapter, Orange County; Chair, The
Peace & Freedom Party, Orange County

Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director,
Council on American-Islamic Relations,
Greater Los Angeles Area

Rev. Wilfredo Benitez, Rector of Saint
Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church

Estee Chandler, A Jewish Voice for
Peace, Los Angeles Chapter

Issa Edah-Tally, President, Islamic
Center of Irvine

Shk. Muhammad Faqih, Religious
Director, Islamic Institute of Orange
County

Shk. Yassir Fazaga

Felicity Figueroa, concerned citizen

Rev. Elizabeth Griswold, Chair,
Progressive Christians Uniting, Orange
County

Rev. Sarah Halverson, Fairview
Community Church

Irvine United Congregational Church

Advocates for Peace and Justice

Orange County Peace Coalition

Jim Lafferty, Executive Director,
National Lawyer's Guild, Los Angeles
Chapter

Rev. Darrell McGowan, Senior Pastor,
First Christian Church of Fullerton

Mike Penn, concerned citizen, Forman
of the Orange County Grand Jury 2006-
2007

Shk. Sayyid Qazwini, Islamic
Educational Center of Orange County

Dr. Muzzammil Siddiqi, Islamic Society
of Orange County

Rev. Jerry Stinson, First Congregational
Church of Long Beach

Shakeel Syed, Executive Director,
Islamic Shura Council of Southern
California

Hector Villagra, Incoming Executive
Director, ACLU of Southern California

Seval Yildirim, Associate Professor,
Whittier Law School


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