UC Irvine faculty to DA: drop criminal charges

One hundred faculty members at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), have called on Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to drop criminal charges against 11 current and former students arrested in February 2010 for disrupting a public speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, on the UCI campus.

The district attorney’s office announced on Feb. 4 that it was filing misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and disturbance of a meeting against the defendants. On a video that circulated widely on the Internet, each defendant can be seen standing up and shouting anti-Israel statements at Oren while he was speaking at the UCI Student Center. One of the defendants, Mohamed Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23, who was then president of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UCI, is also charged with coordinating the disruption several days before the event.

If convicted, the defendants face sentences that could include probation with community service or fines or up to six months in jail.

The faculty signatories, who included several chancellor’s professors and seven professors of law, said they were “deeply distressed” by the district attorney’s decision to file criminal charges against the students. 

“The students were wrong to prevent a speaker invited to the campus from speaking and being heard,” the letter states. “And the Muslim Student Union acted inappropriately in coordinating this and in misrepresenting its involvement to University officials. But the individual students and the Muslim Student Union were disciplined for this conduct by the University, including the MSU being suspended from being a student organization for a quarter. This is sufficient punishment.”

The MSU was reinstated on campus last month after a four-month suspension following a university investigation that found the Muslim council had violated campus codes of conduct for planning and coordinating the disruption. UCI also placed the group on two years’ probation and has ordered members to perform 100 hours of community service.

The letter also states that use of the criminal justice system would be divisive and would risk undoing the healing process that has occurred on campus since the event took place. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sparked critical and often hostile debate at UCI and has caused tense relations between Muslim and Jewish students.

“These events were very traumatic for the campus last year,” said Jon Wiener, a professor of history who signed the letter. “There was a lot of debate among faculty, students and between faculty and the administration about what kind of punishment should there be, was it too much, was it not enough. The suspension of the MSU has ended and they’ve returned to normal campus life this quarter and it’s very important to us that we have a community building process. We thought that was well under way and then the DA has sort of given us potentially a big setback by disrupting this process and throwing us back to the debate over how much punishment is the right amount of punishment,” he said.

Also a signatory on the petition, UCI School of Law Founding Dean Erwin Chemerinsky questioned the wisdom of the district attorney’s prosecutorial discretion in this case.

“Criminal prosecution is unnecessary and undesirable. It sets a dangerous precedent for the unnecessary use of criminal prosecution against student demonstrators,” Chemerinsky said.

On Feb. 9, Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace — whose Web site says it works to achieve a lasting peace that recognizes the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination, and that it supports the boycott, divest and sanction movement against Israel —  delivered a petition with more than 5,000 signatures denouncing the charges. The group said members had similarly interrupted a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in November 2010 without being arrested or criminally charged. 

“The targeting of a group of Muslim American students, who were already sanctioned and whose organization was already suspended by their university as punishment, is unacceptable and will only strengthen Islamophobia and attempts to stifle political speech in this country,” Jewish Voice for Peace said in a statement.

Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney, said her office would not be swayed by public opinion or special interest groups.

“The law against the disruption of a meeting has been on books for 100 years and was litigated at the California Supreme Court and it is constitutional,” Schroeder said. “We’re sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. You don’t have a First Amendment right to shut down other people’s right to speak and other people’s right to hear.” 

Arraignment of the 11 defendants is scheduled for March 11 in Santa Ana.