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Campus Disruption

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Charges in UC Irvine Speech Disruption Case Takes a Critical Look at What Some Say are Inalienable Rights

February 14th 2011

Palestine Topics - Irvine California arrest

Conventional wisdom and law, too, has dictated for so long that you cannot yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater where there is no fire, and even when a fire sparks, there is an appropriate way to alert and manage the crowd.  What we rarely have seen in routine United States society and particularly with the judiciary is the move that occurred in California late last week when the Orange County district attorney's office charged 11 students with conspiring to disrupt a meeting and speech at UC Irvine last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.  The defendants are charged with misdemeanors alleging a conspiracy to disturb a meeting and at least one was charged with the act of disturbing a meeting. If convicted, they each face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines up to six months in jail. Juda Engelmayer

The news that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas had filed conspiracy charges for disrupting a meeting and speech sent a shockwave through the hearts of free speech advocates.  In a time when the news has been on the essentially peaceful protest in Egypt to oust its president, news of a criminal charge in the United States seems to defy convention.

We already know what qualifies as unlawful speech, but the lines on unlawful protest are often blurred or irregularly drawn.  Verbal protest that does not involve physical action has been a norm for free speech proponents. We have seen examples of such throughout America’s history.  It is not uncommon to see peace protestors shout down military proponents at forums, or for example, for community leaders to bring dozens of supporters to community board meetings in New York City to challenge a particular initiative or proposal of that board. 

Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal group that challenges the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, admitted that it too has been involved in disruptive acts without facing prosecution.  In 2010 a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Orleans was disrupted by Jewish protesters and no one faced criminal charges.

In fact, what is routine on college campuses across the country is just what we saw at UC Irvine, and has generally been greatly pronounced when topics of Israel and the Middle East are discussed.  When Columbia University hosted Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007, and protestors got rowdy,  little more than ejection from the assembly occurred.

Also, Columbia University faced a similar issue to UC Irvine in 2004 when pro-Israel Jewish students objected to intimidation by pro-Palestinian professors.  Yet, the worst disruption occurred in October 2006, when students actually stormed a stage during a talk by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a group that opposes illegal immigration to the United States.

Columbia university president Lee Bollinger, a known legal scholar whose specialty is free speech and the First Amendment, condemned the disruption of Gilchrist's speech by saying, “Students and faculty have rights to invite speakers to the campus… Others have rights to hear them. Those who wish to protest have rights to do so. No one, however, shall have the right or the power to use the cover of protest to silence speakers. There is a vast difference between reasonable protest that allows a speaker to continue, and protest that makes it impossible for speech to continue.”

Public officials including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg also weighed in on his opposition to censorship. Ultimately, eight students were censured for disrupting the talk, but that was all.

Yet, what went on at UC Irvine was viewed by law enforcement as something that went beyond intolerable and hit on illegal. Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, said that the difference between the events at UC Irvine and Columbia was in the organization of the two disruptions.

We have an email trail and supporting evidence that showed a conspiracy by Irvine’s Moslem Student Union to plan and disrupt this event by Ambassador Oren.”  Klein differentiated what went on at Columbia by saying, “When the act is by an individual or several acting on instinct, even to the point of disruption, it is not the same as when there is a well planned effort.  At Irvine, they trained and instructed others to lie to college officials and organizers, and staged every aspect of the disturbance.”

Klein stated that the acts are illegal under California statutes, and was uncertain about New York’s laws on specifics of matters like this. “I would hope that all states enact laws that prevent these types of disruptions, and the same should apply to events where opinions that we oppose are being communicated,” Klein said. 

Estee Chandler, an organizer for the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace said, “I certainly have asked questions the speakers have considered disruptive to their narrative… The same type of protests these students did happen all over the country.”

Klein’s replied, “You want to protest and hold signs up outside, do that!  You want to come in and ask challenging questions, do that!  What you cannot do it stop the speaker from speaking.” Klein recalled a time when he was invited to speak at UCI and was asked by his hosts to move the event to an offsite location out of fear of a similar disruption.

When the Orange County California District Attorney filed charges against members of UCI’s Muslim Student Union, it cited penal code 403, which states “Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character … is guilty of a misdemeanor.”  

 District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said that he filed the charges because, “There was an organized attempt to squelch the speaker, who was invited to speak to a group at UCI.”  To the point of a conspiracy, he said, “These defendants meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing his ideas, and they did so by disrupting a lawful meeting.”

Rackauckas contends that, “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.”

While not entirely in defense of these students, 100 members of the UCI faculty wrote a letter to Rackauckas asking him to drop the charges, not claiming they did not violate any laws, but that the students had been punished enough by the school itself.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency, 5W Public Relations and a contributor to the Cutting Edge News.


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