[UPDATED] Irvine 11 Charged With Misdemeanors and Face Jail, Probation, Community Service if Convicted
UPDATE, MARCH 11, 4:08 P.M.: The arraignment of the Irvine 11 was continued this morning until April 15 so the court can consider defense motions to seal grand-jury documents, remove the Orange County district attorney (OCDA) from the misdemeanor criminal case and other procedural matters.
Attorneys for both sides met with Judge Peter J. Wilson in chambers and agreed to the continuance before it was announced to a courtroom packed with media, defense attorneys, prosecutors, family members, supporters, seven of the Irvine 11 defendants and obviously confused defendants in other cases.
"This is ridiculous," said an African-American gentleman behind me accompanied by two women one might find in the Weekly's adult classifieds. "All for this shit?"
Merde or no, the OCDA is pressing the case. "We don't think they have any grounds at all," lead prosecutor Dan Wagner said outside court after the defense motions. "We look forward to presenting evidence."
He was speaking on the second floor of the Orange County Superior Court, near the escalators, where a makeshift press-conference area was set up after the hearing. Earlier, Dan Stormer, one of the five defense attorneys representing different members of the Irvine 11, told the assembled media, supporters and OCDA representatives Wagner's case is "an absolute affront to the Constitution."
"What they're doing is frightening, an affront to our civil rights," said defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman, who represents the Irvine 11's Osama Shabiak and Mohemed Abdelgany, who were president and vice president of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) respectively.
"To allow one person, the DA, to decide what content of the speech to criminalize? It's a very dangerous act for democracy itself," Goodman said. "This goes well beyond these brave students, but for every one of us."
Before explaining the defense motions filed today, Stormer's colleague Dan Mayfield noted he participated in "a lot worse" protests while he was a UCI student (and, judging by his white hair, that was long ago).
The grand jury documents should be sealed because evidence could only be gathered by search warrant if this were a felony rather than misdemeanor case, said Mayfield, who also claimed the state Attorney General should take over the prosecution because the OCDA's office has been trying the case in the media for a year and has demonstrated bias against Muslims.
Evidence of the first motion is found in court documents and media coverage of the case, while the second relies on e-mails prosecutors shared with one another, cc'd to lead defense attorney Reem Salahi, with the title "UCI Muslim Case--Settlement Proposal." Mayfield also pointed to a video on YouTube in which OCDA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Shroeder points out the students were Islamic and the speaker they are charged with interrupting was Jewish. That, Mayfield contends, shows the OCDA is singling out the students because of their faith.
"I think it's certainty that they're Muslim students," agreed Irene Tucker, associate professor of English literature at UCI. Various faculty groups at UCI and elsewhere have urged the DA's office to drop the case.
But Tucker also believes the matter demonstrates UCI is "very anxious by dissent of any sort."
"There are a lot of different histories through which this can be read," Tucker said. "You know they briefly fired the law dean they had just hired when there were objections from members of the Irvine area. There's a long tradition of folding whenever any wealthy or significant member of the Orange County community objects to something. This means the university, individuals, and faculty and students are inhibited in doing the work the university is supposed to do, which is to learn and think in critical ways and to disagree about things in productive ways."
Later, standing alongside Wagner, Schroeder looked at the assembled reporters, noted some of them have been covering her for nine years and remarked incredulously, "And suddenly, I'm racist?" She said the Irvine 11 "clearly violated the law" and her office "had no choice but to file charges" once presented the evidence.
Schroeder and Wagner also found it "curious" the Irvine 11 have"turned things around" to make themselves the free-speech victims when they are accused of violating the free-speech rights of Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S.
But on that point, attorneys, supporters, parents and members of the Irvine 11 had told the Weekly that Oren was making a political speech and the students were reacting with the same by repeating he was an Israeli military leader responsible for the death of Palestinians on the Gaza Strip in 2009. They challenged anyone to check the controversial YouTube videos of them interrupting his February 2010 speech and find where they mentioned Oren's religion. They note they did not, that what they engaged in was constitutionally protected political speech.
"This is just campus activism," Moutaz Herzallah, the father of Irvine 11 defendant Taher Herzallah, told me as we sat next to each other before the hearing began. The Corona resident claimed "special interests" had pushed District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to prosecute the students from UCI and UC Riverside.
Defendant Ali Sayeed read a statement thanking all the student, faculty, religious, civil-rights and other groups around the state that have come out in support of the Irvine 11. Behind him were hundreds of supporters wearing blue duct tape over their faces.
"The reason why our mouths are taped is to represent how our free speech has been suppressed," one supporter said after pulling the tape to the side to speak. "They're basing criminal prosecution on exercising that freedom of speech."
"Absolutely ridiculous they got charged
in the first place," said Alaa Alomar, of UCI's class of 2010. "I'm anxious to see what's going to happen in
a month. Hopefully, everything goes well and in their favor, as it
should, since they're not criminals and they didn't do anything
to be charged."
"It's very important for the community to come and
speak out and say, 'Look, we don't stand behind this,'" the woman who organized the show of support, Marya Bangee of the Stand With the Eleven campaign, said.
Bangee, who graduated from UCI in 2009, accused the OCDA of wasting taxpayer money to prosecute the students. "He's already used $100,000 to investigate, just for speaking during an event. We have nothing better to do with our money?"
She added, "I think this is a case of selective enforcement of the law and discrimination, and I question why this case is being prosecuted. Obviously, this type of protest is common on American campuses. Why these students? And why our money?"
Bangee said the Irvine 11 have received "incredible support from many different faith groups, ethnicities, everywhere; if you check our website, we have over 20 statements of support from different groups across the nation and world."
Among those showing interfaith support at the press conference was Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, who contended the university had already dealt with the matter by disciplining the students and Muslim Student Union. (That's a point Tucker also agreed with: "I think the fact that the MSU was punished was already overreaching, and I think this is even more egregious overreaching. The university is at best derelict in its duty in not speaking out against this sooner." The university has come out against the Irvine 11 prosecution.)
Beliak received polite applause after he said interfaith leaders were on their way to making things more harmonious on campus for Jews, Muslims and other students when the DA's hammer came down. Salahi later noted Rackauckas callously did so 362 days after the incident--or three days before the statute of limitations would have prevented him from filing charges.
"Those students are not criminals," she said. "They did not do anything wrong. They do not belong here today."
OC Weekly intern Chinyere Cindy Amobi contributed to this post.