During the height of the backlash against the prosecution of the so-called “Irvine 11,” I recall asking Erwin Chemerinsky if he believed convictions in the free-speech case would be upheld as constitutional, and the founding UC Irvine law school dean and respected constitutional law scholar answered they would.
On Monday, a panel of Orange County Superior Court judges agreed.
The judges upheld the misdemeanor convictions of 10 Muslim students from UCI and UC Riverside for disrupting a Feb. 8, 2010, speech at UCI by invited speaker Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. An 11th UCI student cut a plea deal before the others were found guilty.
In a ruling dated Wednesday but delivered Monday to attorneys, the judicial panel ruled Ali Mohammad Sayeed, Mohamed Mohy-Eldeeen Abdelgany, Khalid Akari, Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, Joseph Tamim Haider, Taher Herzallah, Shaheen Nassar, Mohammad Anas Qureashi, Osama Shabaik and Asaad Traina were convicted Sept. 23, 2011, because the intent of the law they broke was clear. (Hakim Nasreddine Kebir accepted a plea deal from the court and had charges against him dismissed in exchange for performing 40 hours of community service.)
The take on the disrupting-speech law the students from UCI and UC Riverside violated comes down to this: You cannot hide behind your own free-speech rights to trump those of others.
“In this case, that right of free speech extended not only to Ambassador Oren, but to the several hundred persons who had assembled to hear this presentation,” reads the ruling from Superior Court judges Craig Griffin, Deborah Servino and Glenn Salter.
The judges add the prosecution proved their was intent to break the law as the students exchanged emails planning the demonstration, which had students rising one after another to shout over Oren before being escorted out of the room by campus police. The students later said they consider Oren “a war criminal” for his administrative role in an earlier siege of Palestinian neighborhoods.
Attorneys for the students still argue the law applied their clients was vague and unconstitutional. “Taking a broader view of the question of constitutionality, it is clear that criminalizing a peaceful protest at a political meeting on a college campus flies in the face of the very purpose of the First Amendment–to promote the free exchange of ideas in a true, albeit at times messy, democracy,'' said Jacqueline Goodman, an attorney for some students, in a City News Service report.
Goodman vowed to appeal the judicial panel's ruling to the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Santa Ana.
At this point, the students fulfilled the community-service terms of their sentences, and many have already left their campuses. But the goal of the defense is to reverse their convictions.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.