Irvine 11 students appeal conviction

Ten Muslim students convicted of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine last year filed appeals Wednesday, arguing that the law used to convict them was vague and unconstitutional.

The students, three from UC Riverside and seven from UCI, were convicted last month of willfully disrupting a meeting.

In February 2010, the students shouted preplanned phrases to disrupt a speech on U.S.-Israeli relations on campus by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

Prosecutors said the students broke the law by planning the disruptions, and in turn, censoring Oren. Defense attorneys said the students had the right to dissent.

The case elicited national debate over free speech rights, and when a verdict was announced in a crowded courtroom Sept. 23, it garnered a passionate response. Mothers cried, and civil rights activists called the jury’s verdict “unbelievable.” The appeal will not have any impact on the sentence imposed by Judge Peter J. Wilson, which was 56 hours of community service, fines and probation.

Dan Stormer, an attorney for the defendants, said the current law makes lawful protest unlawful.

“When we censor free speech we are taking away one of the fundamental issues that has made our democracy, not survive, but thrive,” he said.

Dan Mayfield, another defense attorney, said the statute is subjective and puts protesters at a disadvantage.

“It’s only not acceptable when you stand up and you say something that is in opposition to the speaker,” he said.

The district attorney’s office in Orange County is expected to file a response to the appeal, a spokeswoman said.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said that the statute has been argued before – in a 1970 California Supreme Court case with a “well-reasoned” decision.

He said the constitutionality of the law seems to be settled, but there’s a chance the California or U.S. Supreme Court will want to revisit the question.