SANTA ANA (AP) — Eleven Muslim students are set to be arraigned Friday on charges of disrupting a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, in a case that has stoked intense debate about the freedom of speech.
The students are each due in court in Santa Ana on one count of misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one count of misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting.
The students were arrested on Feb. 8, 2010, after shouting in protest at Oren’s speech on U.S.-Israeli security at the Orange County campus, forcing the diplomat to halt his remarks for 20 minutes.
The university revoked the Muslim Student Union’s charter for a quarter and placed it on two years probation.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed charges last month. That prompted a public outcry by Muslim and civil rights advocates who say prosecutors are discriminating against students who were exercising their right to dissent as many other college-goers often do without punishment.
“We believe it is a witch hunt. We believe it is selective prosecution and we believe it is discriminatory prosecution,” said Reem Salahi, one of the attorneys representing the students.
“These types of protests happen all the time and for the district attorney to selectively and criminally prosecute these students is just absurd.”
Eight of the students attended the university in Irvine and three were from the nearby campus of the University of California, Riverside.
Rackauckas has said the protest was a pre-meditated attempt to disrupt Oren’s lecture and infringed on the rights of the 500 to 700 people who had gathered on campus that night to hear him speak.
Prosecutors contend the students planned the protests days ahead of the speech and urged supporters to applaud each time one of them interrupted Oren.
“They’re not being prosecuted for exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. “What they’re being prosecuted for is preventing others from exercising theirs, whether it was the speaker or those who gathered to listen.”
She said the students may appear in court personally, or through an attorney.
If convicted, the students face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines to up to six months in jail.
Marya Bangee, a spokeswoman for a coalition of community groups supporting the defendants, said the students have been offered a plea deal but she doesn’t know if they’ll take it.
Bangee said the students all would need to plead guilty in exchange for having a misdemeanor that could be expunged from their records in two years with good behavior.
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