(JTA) — A California jury found 10 Muslim students guilty of misdemeanors for disrupting a 2010 campus speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
In an incident that drew national attention, 11 Muslim students stood one by one and interrupted a February 2010 speech by Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. Oren twice walked off the stage as students shouted "Mass murderer!" and "War criminal!" before they were hauled out of the room by campus police. A planned Q&A session after the address was dropped.
The Orange County jury on Sept. 23 found 10 of the students guilty of two misdemeanor charges for conspiring to disrupt and then disrupting the speech. Charges against an eleventh student were dropped last month.
The 10 students were sentenced by Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson to 56 hours of community service and three years of probation, though the probation will be reduced to one year if the defendants complete their community service by Jan. 31, 2012.
According to The Orange County Register, Wilson said that jail time was not warranted because the students were "motivated by their beliefs and did not disrupt for the sake of disrupting."
The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine, which organized the heckling, was suspended for a year by the school for violating its code of conduct, but four months later the suspension was changed to probation on appeal.
About a year afterward, the Orange County district attorney’s office brought misdemeanor charges against the students for the disruptions. One student later got the charges dismissed by pledging to perform community service.
The charges created a fierce debate on campuses about the line between student activism and illegal behavior.
Jewish Voice for Peace, which supported the defendants, said in a statement after the verdicts: "This is a shameful day for the legal system and the Jewish communal leaders who actively supported this unfair railroading of young Muslim students and unprecedented attack on everyone’s right to free speech. How can it be that the Israeli ambassador enjoys more rights in the United States than do young Muslim citizens?"
Arguments at the trial largely revolved around two differing views of freedom of speech. Prosecutor Dan Wagner described the students as "censors" who utilized the "heckler’s veto."
"This is about freedom of speech," Wagner said in his closing statement. "That’s why we’re all here."
Defense attorneys described the charges as an attempt to chill political speech on campus.