Carol Sobel, an NLG attorney representing the Irvine 11, has told the press that 6 Muslim students have been summoned to testify before a Grand Jury. It is still unclear whether these 6 are part of the group of 11 that were arrested for heckling Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UCI on February 8, 2010, or if they are other students connected to the Muslim Student Union.
A rally outside the Orange County District Attorney’s office in Santa Ana February 1 drew about 40-50 UCI students, faculty, and alumni, and community members including Christian and Muslim religious leaders and Jewish activists. Student organizers called on the District Attorney to end criminal proceedings against the 11, and warned that charges would set new precedents for the criminalization of dissent.
The question of whether the protest is “free speech” is moot. Free speech at UCI is so limited that numerous campus rules must be broken to enter one’s views into the public form, and clearly any speech that challenges the dynamic and asymmetry of power on campus can result in arrest if not criminal charges. Especially in this case, when we take into consideration the aerial assaults on Gaza, the innumerable arrests of Palestinian children, and the widespread but concealed rounding up of Israeli leftists and anti-Zionists, it is clear that the Palestinian voice is muted, while Israeli speech is hegemonic. Not only was Michael Oren’s voice NOT silenced February 8, he is paid to speak, and he has the power to directly implement policy related to his speech without grovelling at the feet of power just to be heard. On the other hand, for the 11–as representatives of Palestinian and Arab students at UCI, and of the Palestinian people as a whole–interrupting Oren’s speech (which, it should be reiterated, he WAS allowed to finish) was the ONLY way for their voice to be raised without a stream of bullets or extended jail sentence to follow.
Even more shocking is that the punishment for the 11 exceeds that facing the UCI 19. While we believe the 19 should not face charges either, any rational person can see that the protest of the 11 is considerably tamer than what happened at the sit-in that happened two weeks later. Of course, the two cases differ in two ways: First, the 19 case does not primarily touch on the hot-button issue of Palestine; and second, the 19 case has not seen the widespread community–and national–attention that the 11 have received.
But the punishment in general–for both cases–is both excessive and unprecedented. Just as there have never been real charges (criminal or conduct) against students for sitting in on their own campus, there has rarely been charges for heckling a public official. Googling “Obama heckled” reveals countless cases in which the President was interrupted by opponents, even US Senators; George W Bush faced even more challenges, and none of these ever resulted in felony charges, not even misdemeanors. That’s because such an action is a PROTEST, not a CRIME.
Let’s look at similar protests that HAVE NOT resulted in felony conspiracy charges:
And, finally, during a speech at the University of North Carolina, sponsored by the overtly white-nationalist Youth for Western Civilization, Tom Tancredo was interrupted and chased off campus. During the altercation, UNC police used pepper spray and threatened to use tasers, and a window was broken. To our knowledge, no criminal charges have been filed. Chapel Hill SDS explained that, like Oren, “Tancredo is not only in the position to have his hate speech heard by millions of people, but he also has the connections and money to put his words into action.”
We think that is a sufficient survey of past heckling and protests, none of which have resulted in criminal charges, much less felony conspiracy. As one speaker at today’s rally rightly articulated, this criminalization of protest will result in violence in the future, because the charges for peaceful protest already exceed the punishments for violent and destructive forms of protest (all discussions of violence and non-violence aside). Is that what District Attorney Tony Rackauckas or Chancellor Drake want? President Kennedy, in his single positive contribution to society, recognized that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” And we don’t have to look to far for examples of what to expect: the Weather Underground, Red Army Faction, and Baider-Meinhof emerged from the repression of student dissent of the late 60s. Students want the opportunity to dissent peaceably, and know that this will have some effect. The UCI administration would be wise to finally recognize this and make themselves accountable to those who pay their salaries and pensions.