Today’s opening statements in the Irvine 11 trial included explicit deconstruction by the defense team of the Orange County District Attorney’s argument that the Muslim students who protested an Israeli official’s speech last year did so in violation of a California penal code for conspiracy.
“You cannot have a conspiracy to commit an unlawful act if there is not an unlawful act that has been committed,” stated a defense attorney in the courtroom today.
The trial, now underway in the Orange County courthouse in Santa Ana, California, focuses on the prosecution’s claim that the students violated the penal code that could send the students to jail for up to two years on two misdemeanor counts: conspiracy to disrupt a meeting, and disruption of a meeting.
Kifah Shah, media coordinator and spokesperson for the Irvine 11 solidarity group, Stand With the Eleven, told The Electronic Intifada that approximately 100 supporters packed the courtroom after attending a press conference outside of the courthouse. Several major media organizations also attended the pre-trial debriefing, which was organized by local community leaders from such groups as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and several interfaith leaders and professors at UC Irvine.
The LA Times’ Orange County-based Daily Pilot reported that Father Wilfredo Benitez of the Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church stated at the press conference that “[t}his smells of persecution. In a free country … this should simply not be happening.” The report continued:
Moutaz Herzallah, whose son Taher is among the defendants, said Rackauckas “threw the [U.S.] Constitution in the trash” when he decided to press charges.
Moutaz Herzallah, who is from Gaza, said he immigrated to the United States “to have peace, dignity and honor” and that the D.A. should be prosecuted for his disregard of the Constitution.
Shah said that the opening day of the trial “went really well.”
“There were a lot of people there, and a lot of community members came out to support. There was a sentiment of eagerness in the room awaiting and anticipating justice. There was a hopeful feeling,” she added.
I asked her if she had a sense of whether the selected jurors were given a clear picture of what went on during Ambassador Oren’s speech that has led to the prosecution of the students, following the opening statements by the defense and prosecution teams.
Yes. They went over what happened and explained it thoroughly to the jury. They went through exactly what happened, and obviously in their own terms. In terms of the opening statements, the prosecution is arguing that this was a “heckler veto” — meaning that individuals don’t like what’s being said, and decide to “veto” a speech. The prosecution lawyer reiterated that the students tried to “shut down” the event, to provide the evidence during his statements that [the protest] was a conspiracy. He also went over the fact that they belong to a group, the Muslim Student Union (MSU), and that these defendants “conspired together as a group to enact a heckler’s veto.”
He said that the MSU “was not happy” that the ambassador, Michael Oren, was coming to campus, and “they didn’t want to debate the ambassador — they decided they wanted to shut down the event within the guise of acting as individuals. They wanted to shut him down.” Like I said, he repeatedly asserted that the Irvine 11 wanted to shut down the event.
The other part is that he also talked about that it’s the act itself that the jury will deliberate upon, and not the content of the speech. He added that in the beginning of [Oren’s event] itself, the chair of the Political Science department had stated that we “expect and relish debate on campus, but will expect nothing but civility and courtesy” [from the audience]. And then he said that even the Chancellor, when the protest began, that “this is outrageous, and this violates the rules.” So the prosecuting attorney chose these statements in particular to tell a story to the jury — that this was a violation of rules, that this was a conspiracy to shut down the event.
The defense attorneys also laid out what the defendants did during the protest, and what that looked like for them. What was really hit it on the head was that [defense attorney] Reem Salahi stated exactly what was written on the index cards [from which the students read during their protest]. This was a concerted, calculated effort — it was not their intention to resist removal, they were not trying to stall or prolong anything — they simply wrote down what they wanted to say on their index cards, said what they had to say, which amounted in total for each of them just a few seconds, which took up a cumulative five minutes including the jeers from the crowd.
In their emails [that were subpoenaed during the investigation], the students were talking about not resisting, being nonviolent, acting with a certain demeanor — the defense was illustrating how it wasn’t their intention in any way to “shut down” the event. At the end of the event, even Michael Oren had said that he wished the students who protested and were removed from the ballroom “had stayed … it was that group that I wanted to address.”
The defense said really well that “you cannot have a conspiracy to commit an unlawful act if there is not an unlawful act that has been committed.” So what the prosecution has is a conspiracy to commit a crime, and then the actual committing of that crime. But in terms of whether or not a crime was committed, we’re looking at CA Penal Code section 403 which states that there is a violation if a meeting has been disturbed or broken up. However, there was not a crime that was committed here — Oren did finish his speech, at the end of which he stated that he wished the students had stayed.
Another argument is that Oren wasn’t able to do a question and answer — but if you look at how the event was advertised, they didn’t even say that there was an intention that there was going to be a question and answer section to Oren’s speech. The penal code was not violated. That means that the prosecution’s argument of a “shut down” didn’t happen.
In closing, I asked Shah to talk about the solidarity efforts of her campaign, Stand With the Eleven.
Well, even from the opening statements, this is a political opportunity for the district attorney’s office — everyone knows he’s running for re-election, and I really think that if this is selective prosecution, it’s really important to remember that now it’s not just about these ten students, but it’s significant for all Americans at this point. The precedent that is set concerns everyone’s rights to free speech.
The district attorney is the one who’s committing egregious acts of intolerance and persecution. It’s not about these ten students in a courtroom anymore, now it’s about every American and everyone’s rights to free speech.
The Electronic Intifada will continue to update our readers on the Irvine 11 trial. The verdict is set for 23 September.