After a rare prosecution related to a campus protest, 10 Muslim students who are Palestine supporters were found guilty of misdemeanors Friday for heckling the Israeli ambassador to the United States when he spoke at the University of California at Irvine.
But the verdict, which ended a two-week trial in Orange County, is unlikely to put to rest a controversy that raged for more than a year and a half, from the incident itself in February 2010 through the university’s response and now the trial and sentencing. The students’ lawyers have vowed to appeal. And some experts on campus free speech say the verdict could have consequences elsewhere, especially if other district attorneys choose to follow Orange County’s lead in prosecuting student protesters.
“It seems as if the rules have been rewritten,” said Jarret Lovell, a professor of politics at California State University at Fullerton, who has studied and written on protest. He said he sees universities as a place for trial and error, where students can try to apply civics lessons in practice -- even if the result is rude and, as he described the interruptions, “absolutely silly.”
“I think what this prosecution does is it sends a message that says if you’re going to engage in protest, you’d better get it right the first time around,” he said.
Speakers who strongly support or criticize Israel are controversial on many campuses, and at Irvine, which has a history of troubled relationships between some Muslim and Jewish student groups, controversy over Michael Oren’s speech was almost inevitable.
Sure enough, during the speech, 11 students, some from Irvine and others from the University of California at Riverside, repeatedly interrupted, rising one at a time to shout criticism of Israel and drawing applause from others in the crowd. (A video distributed by a pro-Israel group documented the interruptions.) Officials pleaded with the audience, both before the speech and after the interruptions, to let Oren continue; he did so, but ended his speech before a scheduled question-and-answer session.
The university condemned the heckling. While the protesters argued that theirs was a case of academic freedom and free expression, most campus policies defend the right to protest outside a talk, or to ask critical questions afterward, but not the right to interrupt repeatedly.
After an investigation that found that the Muslim Student Union had organized the protest, Irvine officials suspended the group for a quarter -- an unusual step, since college officials rarely discipline political or religious groups. And while the university then considered the matter settled, the Orange County district attorney decided to proceed with a trial, charging all 11 students with two misdemeanors: conspiracy to disrupt a public speech, and disrupting it. The prosecution argued that the students acted as censors by disrupting the speech. The defense countered that the protests were legal and the prosecution infringed on the students' rights, emphasizing that the students' comments took up a small fraction of Oren's 30-minute speech.
Some who had criticized the students’ actions, including Lovell, said taking the case to a jury was going too far and could have a “muting effect” both on student activism and on universities’ willingness to invite speakers who could be controversial.
Others, including the president of the Israel on Campus coalition, said the verdict was important for academic freedom and sent a message that shouting speakers down would not be tolerated.
“It was an important vindication of the right of academic institutions and communities to protect academic freedom and academic integrity,” said Stephen Kuperberg, president of the coalition, which has not taken an official position on the case. “The court reached the appropriate verdict.”
Sanctioning the student organization was appropriate, given the repeated nature and intensity of the interruptions, said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors: “Academic freedom requires any invited speaker to be given the space to deliver a talk,” he wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.
Still, Nelson said the prosecution was unnecessary. “Except in the case of serious felonies, I object to the town/gown version of double jeopardy, in which punishments occur both on and off campus,” he wrote.
Many framed the controversy in ethnic or religious terms: in addition to the history of conflict between supporters of the Israeli and Palestinian causes at Irvine, charges were brought against the students a week before a protest at an Islamic charity event in Orange County. (Those who supported the court's actions, including Kuperberg, said the question was not Israelis vs. Palestinians, or Jews vs. Muslims, but rather a legal point.)
The trial was in part a result of that atmosphere, said Robert M. O’Neil, an emeritus professor of law and First Amendment expert at the University of Virginia. He noted that the case had other unique features, including the fact that students were interrupting a foreign ambassador and the clear ground rules that the university stated before the speech began.
“For some reason, the Middle East tension seems to have played out almost uniquely in Orange County and specifically at UCI,” said O’Neil, who leads the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues project, which seeks to help universities foster conversations on touchy issues. “Therefore, my best guess is that each of these incidents is distinctive, if not unique, and particularly the criminal sanctions here are not likely to translate very extensively.”
In the end, the 10 students (one of the so-called “Irvine 11” pleaded guilty in exchange for community service and probation before the trial began) were sentenced to 56 hours of community service and three years’ informal probation.
But as the planned appeal goes forward, some controversy will no doubt linger.
“One of the advantages that universities have over any other social institution is that they can deal with things themselves, without the law having to get involved,” Lovell said. “This was such a case.”