A wrongheaded prosecution of UC-Irvine student protesters

Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 8:37 PM

ONE BY ONE the students rose in the auditorium, shouting and drowning out a lecture by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last year at the University of California at Irvine.

"Michael Oren, you are a war criminal!" yelled one student, as a group of others cheered him on.

"Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!" shouted another minutes later.

Eleven students in all, many of them members of the school's Muslim Student Union, offered obnoxious - and as the evening wore on, infuriating - interruptions that thwarted Mr. Oren's ability to piece together more than a few sentences. This is not the first time the student union has been embroiled in controversy. A sponsor of the campus's annual Palestinian Awareness Week, the group has hosted speakers who have compared Israel to Nazi Germany and accused the country of carrying out a "holocaust" against Palestinians.

Yet during Mr. Oren's speech, no threats were uttered, no violence ensued and each of the protesters appeared to exit the hall without resistance when campus security approached.

The university suspended the Muslim Student Union from campus for the fall semester; each of the offending Irvine students was disciplined. (The university declines to provide details because of federal privacy rights.) Yet the Irvine 11 - as they have become known - now face criminal misdemeanor charges for "conspiracy to disturb a meeting" and one misdemeanor count of "disturbance of a meeting." According to the prosecutor's office, each student could face up to six months in jail, if convicted.

In a Feb. 4 news release announcing the charges, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas asserted that the students' actions represented "a clear violation of the law and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to a failure to uphold the Constitution." Not true. Prosecutors make judgments all the time about whether justice would be served by trying particular cases. These types of disruptions are most frequently not prosecuted unless they result in threats or physical violence.

Mr. Rackauckas has made his point; he should now use the power of his office wisely, give the students a warning and drop the charges. The protesters, too, have much to learn. Some have characterized the episode as trampling on the students' free-speech rights. That would have been the case had police officers tried to keep them from picketing outside of the auditorium during Mr. Oren's visit. That is not what happened. Instead, the students abused their privileges in an attempt to squelch the free-speech rights of others.

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