Eleven Muslim students have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the disruption of a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at a California university.
The students were arrested on February 8, 2010, at the University of California, Irvine, after shouting in protest at the speech by Michael Oren on U.S.-Israeli security. The students were arraigned Friday in Orange County Superior Court on misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting.
Hecklers had interrupted Oren's lecture at University of California at Irvine, over 10 times, shouting "killers" and "how many Palestinians did you kill?" Oren took a 20 minute break after the fourth protest, only to be interrupted again by young men yelling at him every few minutes, local press reported.
Many members of the audience also applauded Oren. Oren eventually completed his speech, some time later than scheduled, but did not take questions from the audience as planned.
The University of California at Irvine case has stoked an intense debate about freedom of speech. Muslim and civil rights advocates accuse prosecutors of discriminating against students exercising their right to dissent, just as many other college-goers do without punishment.
They also say prosecutors have shown bias against Muslims in their internal communications and are seeking to have the have Orange County district attorney, Tony Rackauckas, removed from the prosecution and want the state attorney general to take over the case.
Prosecutors contend the subject of the students' protest has nothing to do with the case and say defense attorneys have failed to prove they are biased or have a conflict of interest. Rather, they say the demonstration was a premeditated attempt to disrupt Oren's lecture that infringed on the rights of hundreds of people who had gathered on campus to hear him speak.
Prosecutors also asked Judge Peter J. Wilson to unseal transcripts of the grand jury called to investigate the case - a move opposed by defendants.
Seven of the defendants entered their pleas in person. Four other pleas were entered by defense attorneys.
In June 2010, the University suspended the Muslim student group for one year and placed it on disciplinary probation for an additional year in response to the incident. According to the university's decision, the MSU membership was also required to collectively complete 50 hours of community service.
Eight of the students attended UC Irvine and three were from the nearby campus of the University of California, Riverside. If convicted, they could face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines to up to a year in jail.
The next hearing in the case is set for May 13. A trial, which is expected to take two weeks, is scheduled to start August 15.
Since the Irvine incident, there have also been a number of incidences of young Jewish students protesting Israeli officials speaking at American university campuses and other public venues for their participation in determining and promoting Israeli defense policies.
Earlier this month, Kadima MK Avi Dichter, who formerly served as the Director of the Shin Bet and Israel's Public Security Minister, was interrupted by protesters, some of whom were Jewish, at Brandeis University near Boston. Several students got up and called Dichter a war criminal, both in English and Hebrew.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in New Orleans in November was marked by repeated heckling from young Jewish audience members.
The coordinator of that protest, 17-year-old college student Hannah King, from Seattle, said her group sought to protest the attempt to delegitimize criticism of Israeli policies, which she said goes against Jewish values.
There have been no reported arrests of Jewish students stemming from these incidences of heckling, although their behavior would seem to be similiar to those of the Muslim students who protested Oren at University of California at Irvine.
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