Charges Against Amb. Oren’s Hecklers Won’t be Dropped

The Muslim college students who prevented Israel Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking at the University of California at Irvine a year ago are facing arraignment Friday for disturbing an assembly and conspiring to disturb an assembly. The penalty is probation to six months in prison.

In response, about 200 of their supporters convened at the Islamic Institute of Orange County on Saturday evening. The speakers believed that Muslims were being singled out unfairly and that what was being tested was freedom of speech, “the backbone of American democracy.”

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who took his time before filing prosecution and convening a grand jury, disagreed. “Religion or any other affiliation had no bearing on the case,” he said. The accused could hardly rely on freedom of speech for it was they who “meant to stop [Oren’s] speech and stop anyone else from hearing [the ambassador’s] ideas.”

Susan Schroeder, the DA’s spokeswoman, said her office received letters for and against the charges, but that it was simply upholding the law irrespective of the parties involved.

“If the speaker was Martin Luther King and the people disrupting him were students who are members from the Ku Klux Klan, and they were shutting down Martin Luther King’s speech and preventing him from speaking, we would’ve filed charges,” she said, and added: “When people can’t argue based on the facts, they cry racism, and that’s silly.”

The students enjoy backing from the UCI faculty as 100 faculty members called upon the DA to drop the charges, claiming that the university disciplinary procedures should suffice. A statement from the faculty members warned:

“The use of the criminal justice system will be detrimental to our campus as it inherently will be divisive and risk undoing the healing process which has occurred over the last year. It also sets a dangerous precedent for the use of the criminal law against non-violent protests on campus.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, on the other hand, claimed that the students’ actions infringed on the rights of the audience. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh argued that as opposed to political conventions where there are few limitations on heckling, a university presentation that allows questions and answers is a different case. University administrators had also warned that the interruptions were improper. Therefore the DA was justified in trying the case.