US court finds Muslims guilty in free speech row

‘Irvine 11’ guilty of disrupting college speech by Israel’s ambassador to the US
US court finds Muslims guilty in free speech row
The students had interrupted a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US
By Reuters
Sun 25 Sep 2011 11:16 AM

Ten Muslim
college students in California were convicted and sentenced to probation for
disrupting a speech at their university by Israel's ambassador to the United
States.

The
students, whose case touched off a furor over free speech rights at the
University of California at Irvine, were also ordered to perform 56 hours of
community service by an Orange County Superior Court judge.

A jury of
six men and six women convicted the students of one count each of conspiracy
and disturbing an assembly after an eight-day trial - a verdict that was
greeted by wails and sobbing from spectators in a packed courtroom in Santa
Ana.

The
convicted students were each placed on three years' probation by Superior Court
Judge Peter J. Wilson, but could have that reduced to a year if they complete
the community service by January 31.

Charges
have been tentatively dismissed against an 11th defendant.

The case
stems from a protest organized by the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine of a
February 2010 speech there by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the
United States.

Prosecutors
said the students interrupted his appearance by yelling insults such as,
"It's a shame this university has sponsored a mass murderer like
yourself."

Defense
lawyers said they would appeal the convictions, saying their clients, all honour
students who already did volunteer work in their communities, had the right to
carry out the kind of protest that is common on college campuses.

One of the
10 convicted students, Mohammad Qureashi, 21, said after the sentencing that he
was "proud to be an American" despite the verdicts.

Qureashi
said he was born in the United States to Pakistani parents.

"I
would never have thought in my craziest nightmares that something like this
would make you a criminal," Qureashi said.

Orange
County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said the students had conspired to
deprive Oren of his right to free speech, and had planned their protest weeks
in advance to make sure the ambassador would not be heard at the university.

"The
defense decided it was their university and they would decide who was going to
speak at the university. They were betting the UCI police wouldn't do anything
about it," Rackauckas said.

The case
drew an outcry from civil liberties advocates and Southern California's Muslim
community, who said the students were unfairly singled out for prosecution
because of their religion.

"Already
at UCI there's an intense level of anti-Muslim sentiment, and this verdict
chills free speech and activism and sends a message around the country that
Muslim students are going to be treated differently from other students who
protest," said Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director of the greater
Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Hector
Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern
California, said in a statement he was deeply troubled by the convictions.

"If
allowed to stand, this will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County
and across the state and discourage them from engaging in any controversial
speech or protest for fear of criminal charges," Villagra said.

Shalom
Elcott, president and CEO the Jewish Federation and Family Services, which
sponsored Oren's visit, called the verdict a "landmark" in the
history of anti-Israel activity on US university campuses.

"For
years the Muslim Student Union has been perpetrating hate speech on campus and
pushing the limit on what is considered acceptable and civil discourse in the
university setting," Elcott said in a statement on the group's website.

For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.