Muslim Students Shout Down Israeli Ambassador, Found Guilty of Conspiracy

Ten Muslim students were found guilty on misdemeanor conspiracy charges for their "plot" to shout down the Israeli ambassador during a speech at UC Irvine.

Ten Muslim students were found guilty on misdemeanor conspiracy charges for their “plot” to shout down the Israeli ambassador during a speech at UC Irvine.

LAT (“‘Irvine 11’ jury finds all 10 students guilty“):

After more than two days of deliberation, an Orange County jury on Friday found 10 Muslim students guilty of two misdemeanors to conspire and then disrupt a February 2010 speech at UC Irvine last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

[…]

In a case that garnered national attention over free-speech rights, the trial centered on conflicting views of who was being censored. Prosecutors argued that Ambassador Michael Oren was “shut down” when his speech was interrupted by students who took turns shouting preplanned phrases in a crowded UC Irvine ballroom.

Six defense attorneys argued that the students, seven from UC Irvine and three from UC Riverside, were only following the norm of other college protests and were being singled out. A guilty verdict, the defense had said during the trial, could chill student activism and the free exchange of ideas at colleges nationwide.

University administrators disciplined some of the students involved and suspended the campus Muslim Student Union, whose members participated in the protest, for an academic quarter. The group is still on probation.

[…]

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s Law School, has said that although freedom of speech is not an absolute right, university sanctions were enough for the students. But he also added that he believes criminal sanctions go too far. Chemerinsky told The Times last week that “it makes no sense” to use such resources. “It’s so minor.”

I tend to side with Chemerinsky on this one. We’ve long recognized that there are time, place, and manner limitations on the right of free speech. An invited guest and his audience have free speech rights, too, and in my judgment those outweigh the right of protestors to demonstrate.

The conduct of these students was shameful and deserved sanction from the school. I could even see civil penalties under disturbing the piece statutes. But the notion that an orchestrated demonstration is some sort of criminal conspiracy is absurd on its face.

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh sheds some useful light on this ruling. Despite talk of “conspiracy,” here’s what the legal controversy involved:

 The relevant statute, Cal. Penal Code § 403, says: “Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character … is guilty of a misdemeanor.” In re Kay (1970) held that, to be convicted under the statute, the prosecution must show “that the defendant [1] substantially impaired the conduct of the meeting by intentionally committing acts [2] in violation of implicit customs or usages or of explicit rules for governance of the meeting, of which he knew, or as a reasonable man should have known,” and [3] “the defendant’s activity itself — and not the content of the activity’s expression — substantially impairs the effective conduct of a meeting.”

This strikes me as an entirely reasonable “time, place, and manner” restriction wholly consistent with the core principle of free speech that there be no abridgment on account of the content of the speech. That is, the students here are being punished for  interfering with the rights of those assembled to hear the speech, not for the ideas they’re expressing.

Volokh adds,

First, the customs of presentation at universities seem to me to be much less tolerant of heckling; there is plenty of time for audience participation during Q & A, but shouting during the speech is not at all customary. (Perhaps the California Supreme Court got it wrong in interpreting the statute in a way that requires a determination of the particular customs of a certain kind of event; but that seems to be required under the Kay decision.)

Second, and relatedly, the university administrators repeatedly stressed to students that such interruptions were improper. To the extent that Kay focused on what was said by the authorities during the meeting as evidence of custom (“Indeed, the principal speaker at the rally, an elected public official, stated that the relevant custom sanctioned the demonstrative conduct of petitioners as a legitimate means of expression”), this cuts the other way here.

So, the Muslim Students Association was free to protest outside the meeting hall. They were free to organize an alternative event, to write op-eds in the school newspaper criticizing the ambassador, and so forth. And, most likely, they would have been welcome to line up during the Q&A session and respectfully address their concerns to the ambassador.

In my original post, I noted that this struck me as a case of “disturbing the peace” rather than criminal conspiracy. Sure enough, § 403 is the first of seventeen under Title 11 of the California Code, which is titled “Of Crimes Against the Public Peace.”

FILED UNDER: Education, Law and the Courts, Religion, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Vast Variety says:

    Does this mean that the idiots who booed the US Military at the GOP debate could be brought up on charges?

    This seems to open a lot of doors to stupid criminal charges.

  2. Sam says:

    Pies thrown at speakers, rushing the speakers on stage, this, Michael Moore calling for attackes on the “rich”. Those lefties sure are a violent group.

    I REALLY want to see Moore attack himself with violence since he is a richer!

  3. Sam says:

    @Vast Variety:

    Misrepresenting the facts? Were they booing the military or the policy?

  4. Sam says:

    For the record and for those who misrepresent the truth.

    “Sara Rumpf was in the debate audience and what she witnessed was vastly different than the account the outlets linked above are reporting:

    I want to put this on the record now about an incident that happened at tonight’s Republican debate. It’s important that the truth is shared, because I have already seen liberal bloggers and some people on Twitter completely distorting what happened.

    The debate included video questions that were submitted on YouTube, and one came from a soldier serving in Iraq who is gay and asked about the candidates’ opinions on don’t ask don’t tell. There was audible booing after his question…however, please note that it was not the crowd booing. It was only one or two people.

    I’ve also received a couple of emails from other debate attendees who back up Rumpf’s claim (done independent from her) that it was a couple of blockheads who decided to show their idiocy — not the audience.

    That’s what those print outlets linked above aren’t telling you: the hisses and boos you heard came from the crowd who yelled at the two men.

    Frankly, I don’t care where you stand on DADT, you don’t boo a soldier in the battlefield, period. The audience at last night’s debate believe this which is why they verbally took apart the men who yelled. Conservatives police their side.

    If progressives want to talk about bigotry, let’s talk about the unfiltered racist hatred they dumped on Twitter the night Troy Davis was delivered justice. Look at Michelle Malkin’s Twitter stream for that. I’m waiting for progressives to clean up their house.”

    http://bigjournalism.com/dloesch/2011/09/23/media-narrative-gets-it-wrong-debate-crowd-did-not-boo-gay-soldier/

  5. Vast Variety says:

    @Sam: You might want to read the part of my comment where I said…

    This seems to open a lot of doors to stupid criminal charges.

    I remarking on the ridiculousness of the charges made against the Muslim students and how it could open the door to charges for any stupid outburst in a similar setting.

    I would recommend you turn off Fox News and go outside and get some fresh air once in a while.

  6. john personna says:

    As I’ve said in the past, I don’t see why “civil disobedience” types don’t accept misdemeanors as their due.

    I mean, if it’s just OK, you made less of a point, right?

  7. john personna says:

    (I guess they aren’t happy with disobedience, they want courts to support their disobedience.)

  8. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I tend to agree, although “civil disobedience” is usually against the state and thus a direct violation of law. This particular activity doesn’t fall into the ambit of what I think of when I hear “conspiracy.”

  9. Gustopher says:

    I guess that when the Tea Party folks go to Democratic Representative’s town halls and shout them down, they’re part of a conspiracy too.

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Graduating from 2nd-tier universities in a state with double digit unemployment is punishment enough. Seriously, unless those kids are exchange students or have free rides their penance will be having to pay off their student loans with no jobs and no job prospects. The fact they’re obviously liberal idiots won’t help their causes.

  11. jpe says:

    The statute makes it a crime to disrupt lawful speech; they disrupted lawful speech; ergo they’re guilty. Makes sense to me.

  12. mattb says:

    @john personna:

    As I’ve said in the past, I don’t see why “civil disobedience” types don’t accept misdemeanors as their due.

    Many do. And many wear those convictions as a badge of honor.

  13. Tlaloc says:

    An invited guest and his audience have free speech rights, too, and in my judgment those outweigh the right of protestors to demonstrate.

    Strongly disagree, the limits on free speech should be for purposes of safety and to prevent slander/libel. Anything more than that is a very disturbing precedent.

    The conduct of these students was shameful and deserved sanction from the school. I could even see civil penalties under disturbing the piece statutes. But the notion that an orchestrated demonstration is some sort of criminal conspiracy is absurd on its face.

    Agree here. I have no problem if the school decided to censure the students. But a criminal case is beyond disturbing and just flat out wrong. Hopefully this gets roundly rejected on appeal.

  14. Isn’t situations like this what trespassing laws are for? That is, when they start shouting down the ambassador, you tell them to leave. If they do, no problem. If they don’t, you can press charges for trespassing.

    No need to bring wacky conspiracy charges in to it.

  15. @Tlaloc:

    Strongly disagree, the limits on free speech should be for purposes of safety and to prevent slander/libel. Anything more than that is a very disturbing precedent.

    So can I force my way into your house at 3am and start reading the Bibleout loud in your bedroom, since there’s no threat to your safety in my doing so?

  16. jpe says:

    Hopefully this gets roundly rejected on appeal.

    This is classic time/place/manner regulation. The convictions won’t be reversed. Shorter: what Stormy Dragon said.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @Vast Variety: Sam prefers to post in response to his own posts rather than those of another person. In this thread you can see three posts fom him in a row, like a mentally disabled homeless person having a conversation with himself.

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    @Stormy Dragon: There’s a threat to your safety if Tlaloc reaches for a shotgun when you burst through his front door.

  19. ponce says:

    Have other groups of protesters been convicted of similar charges in California?

    Or are these Muslim students the first?

  20. @Ben Wolf:

    Okay, suppose I stand on the street at three AM reading the bible to him via a loudspeaker of some sort? We okay since he’s perfectly safe inside his house?

  21. racehorse says:

    These people have every right to demonstrate – as long as it does not interfere with MY right and the right of others to attend and hear a speaker without disruptions! Let’s consider some similar situations: movie theaters ask patrons to turn off cell phones and refrain from talking or face ejection. I cannot go up and down my streets at 2:00 am with a blowhorn singing Johnny Cash songs at a volume 40 without facing arrest. If I go to an amusement park and break line, I can and will be ejected. Years ago, many cars had boom boxes that were louder than an F16 jet – they were ticketed (I cannot understand why these superloud motorcycles are never pulled over – police afraid?). These kind of assemblies should warn that disrupting will result in ejection. If they try to return, they will be prosecuted for trespassing and creating a scene. These demonstrators could have stayed outside and peacefully demonstrated there. They showed no respect for the people who came and behaved. I would never think of going into an NCAAP convention and waving a Confederate flag even if I disagree with some of their positions: I have more respect for the people than that.
    Now who can argue with this?

  22. Tlaloc says:

    So can I force my way into your house at 3am and start reading the Bibleout loud in your bedroom, since there’s no threat to your safety in my doing so?

    You can’t be this dumb. No you shouldn’t be in dager of charges of criminal conspiracy for choosing to read your bible loudly. You should be in danger of a trespassing charge for entering my house uninvited.

  23. Tlaloc says:

    These people have every right to demonstrate – as long as it does not interfere with MY right and the right of others to attend and hear a speaker without disruptions!

    You have no such right. Sorry.

  24. racehorse says:

    @Tlaloc: If I pay $60 to get into a concert or other event, no one had better disrupt or otherwise ruin the show. If that happens, I will get my money back or that will be the last show that person disrupts for a while.

  25. Sam says:

    @Vast Variety:

    Ohhhhhh, tha Fox News Hammer!!!! OUCH!!! NOT!

    Thats cool, you continue to get your news from MSNBC’s Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz.
    And where YOUR head is there is no light or air I see.