ANAHEIM (AP) — More than 200 people rallied Saturday in support of 11 Muslim students facing criminal charges for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador at the University of California, Irvine.
Supporters of the so-called “Irvine 11″ packed a meeting room at the Islamic Institute of Orange County, arguing that the students were exercising their free-speech rights and should be protected, the Orange County Register reported Sunday.
The 11 students, some of whom belonged to the Muslim Student Union, were arrested Feb. 8, 2010, after shouting and protesting during a speech on U.S.-Israeli security by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. The disruption forced him to stop his remarks for about 20 minutes.
They are scheduled to be arraigned Friday on charges of disturbing an assembly and conspiring to disturb an assembly.
The Register said speakers Saturday questioned whether the students would have been prosecuted if they weren’t Muslim, but said the case raises concerns beyond religion.
“The reality is that protest and expressing dissent makes up the very fabric of American democracy,” said attorney Reem Salahi, who is helping to defend the 11 students.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has said the students broke the law and would be prosecuted regardless of their religion or any other affiliation. The 11 students “meant to stop this speech and stop anyone else from hearing (the ambassador’s) ideas,” he said when he filed the charges in February.
Speakers at Saturday’s meeting vowed to hold future demonstrations in support of the students. They plan to gather outside the courthouse Friday, dressed in black, with tape over their mouths.
The university revoked the Muslim Student Union’s charter for one year and placed it on probation for another year after doing its own investigation. In September, the school softened the sanctions by restoring the group’s charter effective Dec. 31, but it added a year of probation and 100 hours of community service.
Officials with the university have said the school completed its disciplinary process and has no connection to the district attorney’s investigation.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)