Muslim students appeal 2011 conviction on free speech grounds

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Attorneys have filed an appeal for 10 defendants convicted in a 2011 jury trial on misdemeanor charges for planning to disrupt and then disrupting a 2010 speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States on the University of California, Irvine campus.

The 10 appealing defendants — all Muslim and all students at UC Irvine or the University of California, Riverside — were each sentenced to 56 hours of community service and three years of “informal” probation, reports the Daily Pilot, an area newspaper.

Prosecutors dropped charges against an 11th student after he agreed to perform 40 hours of community service in an Orange County soup kitchen.

The defendants — called the Irvine 11 — took turns shouting pre-planned phrases in a jam-packed UC Irvine ballroom in an effort to interrupt Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a February 2010 speech, explains the Los Angeles Times.

The original 2011 trial garnered national attention over free-speech rights and on who exactly was being censored. Jury deliberation took more than two days.

Prosecutors argued that protesters illegally prevented Oren from speaking, notes the Times. Attorneys for the defendants maintained that the charges and the trial were an affront to the First Amendment.

In an appeal brief filed last week, attorneys for the defendants claimed that the state statute providing the basis for the conviction is “unconstitutionally vague.” The law makes the willful disturbance of meetings illegal.

“The basic premise is that this statute, as applied, makes completely lawful political speech a criminal act, and the First Amendment was never intended to allow that,” said Dan Stormer, one of the lawyers representing the Irvine 11, according to the Daily Pilot.

A prosecutor on the case, Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, naturally disagrees. He predicted in the Pilot that the conviction will be upheld because the California Supreme Court has already found the statute constitutional.

“Furthermore, their behavior is not the type of behavior or conduct that is protected by the First Amendment,” Wagner said. “The evidence showed they were intent on taking away the ambassador’s right to free speech.”

The defendants were disciplined by officials at their respective schools, says the Daily Pilot. The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine was temporarily suspended.

At the time of the original trial, supporters of Irvine 11 gathered at the courthouse and outside the Orange County district attorney’s office with tape over their mouths to protest the trial.

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