The First Amendment, academic freedom and Islamophobia collide in an OC courtroom
In her closing arguments for what has come to be known as the Irvine 11 case, defense attorney Reem Salahi offered a personal story. Displayed on the projection screen was a black-and-white photograph of a man with his mouth taped shut.
"Well," Salahi said. "I guess I can't tell you my story. I got shut down."
The packed courtroom exploded with laughter and cheers. After the jurors stepped out, the judge admonished the crowd for its outburst. "This is a court of law," Wilson said sternly. "It is not a spectator sport."
The irony was not lost on anyone. A decision would soon arrive in the historic Irvine 11 trial, one that has ignited an unusual debate over First Amendment rights at public events.
The case centers on an incident during a Feb. 8, 2010, speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at and sponsored by UC Irvine. Members of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) stood up and shouted scripted messages relating to the 2009 attack on the Gaza Strip—such as "You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide!" and "Murder is not free speech!"—before being escorted out by police. The university suspended the MSU and ordered the group to collectively complete 100 hours of community service.
A year after the protest, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed criminal misdemeanor charges against 11 students, eight from UCI and three from UC Riverside, who became known as the Irvine 11. The 10 current defendants are Mohamad Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, Khalid Gahgat Akari, Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, Joseph Tamim Haider, Taher Mutaz Herzallah, Shaheen Waleed Nassar, Mohammad Uns Qureashi, Ali Mohammad Sayeed, Osama Ahmen Shabaik and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina. (Charges against Hakim Nasreddine Kebir will be dropped if he completes 40 hours of community service by next month.) "In our democratic society, we cannot tolerate a deliberate, organized, repetitive and collective effort to significantly disrupt a speaker, whom hundreds assembled to hear," Rackauckas said in a statement.
The students are charged with disturbing a public meeting and engaging in a conspiracy to do so. If convicted, each faces up to a year in jail.
The defendants, silenced by a gag order, are at the center of a political maelstrom, as people around the country watch YouTube videos of the demonstration. They've been called martyrs, bravely speaking out against injustice in the Middle East. They've been called pawns in a trial brought on for political gain. They've been called thugs, unwilling to engage in civil dialogue and very willing to squelch dissent at any cost.
But lead prosecutor Dan Wagner called them "guilty," writing the word on an easel pad in bold red letters.
"Who is the censor in this case?" he asked the jurors. "Right there—10 of them."
He added, "Free speech is not absolute. It does not include the right to suppress or cancel another person's right to free speech. If it did, then no one would have the right to free speech."
In his prosecution, Wagner tried to prove the defendants "willfully disturbed" a lawful meeting by presenting a series of emails that were sent in the days leading up to the protest. Obtained from Google by search warrant, the messages discussed plans for a disruption similar to a 2009 incident at the University of Chicago, where about 30 demonstrators stood up in the crowd, one by one, to protest a lecture being given by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
One email contained the minutes from an MSU meeting, which stated that the goal of the protest was to "send the speaker a message" and show him that "he can't just go to a campus and say whatever he wants." Included were plans to "disrupt the whole event" and "shut down with individual disruption."
Rabbi David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, sat in the courtroom in support of the prosecution. He attended Oren's speech last year and described the disruptions as "frightening for anyone who believes in the Constitution."
"If they wanted to go outside and walk around with signs, that's their right," he told the Weekly. As for the way the students protested, he called it "everything just short of violence."
Wagner included as evidence several warnings and scoldings from UCI Chancellor Michael Drake and professor Mark Petracca throughout the event.
The defense, in turn, tried to get jurors to look at the incident in the greater context. "College students protest," said attorney Jacqueline Goodman in her closing arguments. "Protest is messy, but it's beautiful. This is how democracy survives."
During the trial, attorney Lisa Holder explained the students were speaking out against violence, that they "modeled their behavior after revered leaders they had studied at UC Irvine," including Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. The defense team had brought in several witnesses who had experienced student protests, all of which ended without arrests or sanctions. Goodman projected a photograph of Representative Joe Wilson and his infamous "You lie!" in reference to his outburst during President Barack Obama's September 2009 health-care address. She compared the disruptions by the defendants to comedy-club heckling: "Rude, not illegal."
Both Wagner and defense attorneys showed conflicting pie charts breaking down how much time Oren actually had to speak after disruptions by the protesters, subsequent cheering and jeering, plus remarks by university officials were subtracted.
"When dissent is questioned in a court of law, one may argue it's the beginning of the death of democracy," he said.
Throughout the trial, the elephant in the courtroom has been Islamophobia, an issue that many Irvine 11 supporters have raised because the incident took place on a campus with a history of tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as because the students are Muslim.
"If these kids had been Christian or Jewish, we wouldn't be sitting here," said Hussan Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Los Angeles, in an interview. "There's some political gain for the persecution of Muslims, especially in right-wing circles."
The courtroom audience overwhelmingly consisted of Irvine 11 family members and supporters. During breaks, a few women in multihued hijabs would kneel down in the corner of the hallway, then start bowing and murmuring prayers.
Kifah Shah, spokesperson for the Stand With the Eleven Campaign, warned them to not do so. "Go pray outside," she said.
Shah has said that in pursuing this case, the district attorney's office has "set a very dangerous precedent of stifling critical discourse across college campuses." Hassun Chaudhry, a UC Irvine alum and friend of the defendants, agrees, believing the prosecution of the Irvine 11 may send an open invitation to the government to selectively quell dissent.
"They're using the anti-Muslim sentiment to get people to fight these kids' liberties, and then they can use this case to trump other liberties," he said. "It can be used against environmental groups or people who are anti-corporation. It's just gonna bite everyone in the ass."
As of press time, a verdict had not been reached in the Irvine 11 trial. For up-to-date news on the case, visit our Navel Gazing blog at blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing, on which portions of this story have previously appeared.
This article appeared in print as "Who's Gagging Whom? The First Amendment, academic freedom and Islamophobia collide in the Irvine 11 trial."