The Irvine 11: A Tale of Two Protests

Remember the group of young Jewish Voice for Peace activists who protested Israeli policy during Netanyahu’s speech in NOLA last November? You might recall that the young protesters were forcibly removed from the auditorium but faced no legal sanctions. (You may also recall that they were hailed as heroes by many Jewish editorial writers.)

As it turns out, eleven young Muslim students who staged a similar protest at UC Irvine during a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last February are facing possible prison sentences. The Orange County DA announced today it is charging the students with “conspiring to disrupt a meeting” and “disrupting a meeting.”  If convicted they face a sentence ranging from community service/fine to up to six months in jail.

From a Jewish Voice for Peace press release:

(JVP) notes that our own members have engaged in similar protests in the past without being charged, and stand by it as a form of legitimate expression in an open and democratic society. The targeting of a group of Muslim American students, who were already sanctioned and whose organization was already suspended by their university as punishment,  is unacceptable and will only strengthen Islamophobia and attempts to stifle political speech in this country.

Whether you believe these students’ actions constituted civil disobedience or simple obnoxiousness, you can’t deny the egregious double standard. JVP will be hand-delivering a letter of protest to the Orange County DA this Wednesday and I’m proud to be a co-signer. If you’d like to contact the office yourself, click here.

16 thoughts on “The Irvine 11: A Tale of Two Protests

  1. Richard Kahn

    Should we also circulate a separate petition to charge the Young Proud Jews with the same crime? That would eliminate the double standard.

  2. Richard Kahn

    I should also add that everyone should read the link to the DA’s office that R. Brant provided. They very clearly committed a crime, and when a case arose involving the giving statute in the California Supreme Court, its constitutionality was not questioned. Free speech does not protect them. I hope they get convicted, and I wasn’t being facetious when I suggested that the YPJ’s should also be prosecuted if a similar law exists in Louisiana.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I’m far less Draconian than you on this. Given the circumstances: i.e., that the University has already handed down penalties on the students and their organization, that this was an act of nonviolent protest made out of moral conscience, and the fact that these kinds of nonviolent university protests are rarely, if ever, criminally prosecuted, I find the DA’s actions to be deeply troubling.

      I think the ACLU of Southen California statement put it very well:

      We are unaware of any case where a district attorney pressed criminal charges over this type of nonviolent student protest. The district attorney’s action will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state, and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges.

      1. Richard Kahn

        The statute was clearly passed to stop precisely this type of behavior. If such a disruptive action is not regularly prosecuted, it should be. We can’t have civil society if every time somebody questionable speaks, I go and yell during the whole speech. But we’ve had this argument earlier. Disrupting a meeting is illegal, as it should be. There should be no exception to the rule because the criminal is acting out of “moral conscience.” Part of civil disobedience is illegal, and part of it involves accepting the penal consequences.

        The argument that this prosecution will discourage students from engaging in controversial speech or protest has some merit, but I would argue that it would merely discourage students from engaging in controversial speech or protest done in a disruptive/obnoxious/illegal context. If they had called Oren a mass murderer and perpetrator of genocide before or after the speech, or really in any other context, it could possibly be slanderous but would not be illegal under the statute in question.

  3. Stewart Mills - Sydney

    Hi Brant,

    I was inspired by what you wrote to add some further examples of the inconsistency

    In addition to the Young Jewish and Proud protest in Louisiana (which also has a Crimes Against the Peace for interrupting a lawful assembly) there are other significant examples. Remember the clown protest at the UN Anti-Racism Summit in Geneva in 2009. Alan Dershowitz, is identified in a Jerusalem Post article, as a being a participant of the Jewish group that conspired to interrupt the UN meeting. Similarly the US and European representatives interrupted this meeting in their own walk out when the President of Iran spoke.

  4. Stewart Mills - Sydney

    Richard – are the heckles of Alan Dershowitz at an international meeting of political leaders any less offensive than the heckles of Arab American students? Or should Arab Americans have dressed in a clown outfit as they yelled like the French Jewish protestor? Is the Californian law on Crimes Against the Public Peace meant to maintain the peace by placing criminal sanctions on hecklers or was the law put in place for something greater – namely for acts of a more violent nature? What about the intimidatory and threatening behaviour of certain Knesset MP’s towards Hanin Zuabi? Are you suggesting Knesset members involved in this should face criminal sanctions?

  5. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


    You are suggesting the criminalization of heckling. People interrupt political speakers all the time in this country and they are not routinely arrested.

    If we sought to charge every heckler with potential jail time as you suggest, we wouldn’t have a “civil society” – we’d have a police state.

  6. Richard Kahn

    R. Brant,
    I apologize if I was not sufficiently clear. I am not suggesting the criminalization of heckling. What I am protesting is taking away someone’s free speech rights by not allowing him/her to speak. If the YPJ’s or the MSU at UCI had yelled something in the middle of the speech and then left or shut up, it would have been different. But conspiring to yell periodically during a speech such that the speaker will never have a chance to say anything is and should be a crime. It is different than merely “interrupting political speakers.”

    With regards to Hanin Zuabi, in the US at least they would be protected by the Speech and Debate Clause (, although Israel doesn’t have a Constitution.
    I don’t know what Alan Dershowitz did. If he yelled obnoxiously during the speech, I would be OK with it. If he stood up, yelled continuously, and refused to allow the meeting to happen, I would support charging him.
    With regards to Ahmadinejad, with all due respect, a walk out is not remotely the same as the YPJ or MSU. Do you really think the MSU students would have been arrested if they had walked out of Ambassador Oren’s speech? Free speech doesn’t mean that all are forced to listen.
    If the California law were put into place for violent protests, it probably would have used the word “violent.” Additionally, the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law differs from yours.

    Trust me, I’m consistent on this matter. It’s not a political double standard. I take free speech very seriously, which is why I am so opposed to these protests.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      The YJP and Irvine activists did not conspire to shut down the presentations in question. They were making public protests. If you look at both videos carefully, in both cases the protesters individually made their statements, then immediately allowed themselves to be led away by police/security. In both cases the speeches continued on and were completed as planned. This is the crux of the defense of the Irvine 11, which I believe is a just case – especially given the fact that these kinds of protests are never criminally prosecuted.

  7. Israel Gershon

    I think Richard makes a strong argument. And I think there is a difference between a heckle and an organized effort to prevent a person from speaking. It may also be worth considering that his argument is particularly strong when considering the University environment and the desire for it to be a place where there can be an exchange of ideas.

  8. Kirsten D.

    I agree that this punishment does not seem to fit the crime. I was more comfortable with the student organization being temporarily suspended. I think this disproportionate response has a lot to do with the community of Irvine, where I had the unpleasant experience of living during the three years of my master’s degree work. Irvine is an extremely conservative, antiseptic, repressive, and image-conscious community that is the home of several corporate headquarters. I received an outrageous fine for a rolling stop at a stop sign on a deserted street, and though I pleaded student poverty to an Orange County judge, I was ordered to pay. I opened a bank account at a local bank, and was “recognized” by the bank manager for being “our first Italian-American customer.” Based on my experience, I’m not surprised to see that Orange County officials have responded in this way. I’m not sure it is entirely racially motivated, since there are lots of ways this incident must have hurt Irvine’s pride (humiliation in front of a foreign dignitary, disorderly conduct in an eerily orderly campus, bad publicity for a university whose usual claims to fame are research honors, etc.) Those aspects probably all added fuel to this fire. But I can’t discount the possibility of racial prejudice as well. That said, it is difficult for me to support acts of civil disobedience that get in the way of talking and listening, as much as I may sympathize with the frustrations or with the message. The 10,000 activists who stopped traffic on LakeShore Drive in Chicago the night the bombs were dropped on Baghdad in 2003 may have prevented people from getting home quickly that night, but they didn’t trample on someone else’s free speech rights.

  9. Stewart Mills - Sydney

    Richard, are you suggesting that members of the Tea Party should be charged in a conspiracy to disrupt this meeting? Take for example the following town hall meeting at Moran in Virginia. How many people were arrested at this meeting?

    Dean Booed and Heckled at Moran Town Hall in Reston, VA 9/25/09

    The speaker was denied the opportunity to speak because of jeers, yelling, heckling and chants from the crowd. As you will be well aware the Federal Health Care Bill cause huge emotions within the community and the Tea Party heavily orchestrated a campaign against supporters of this bill. What would the response of the Tea Party be if organizers of the protest were arrested? Would mass arrests better promote peace in this context or would this affect the United States in other ways eg Brant’s suggestion that you would be creating a police state.

    Richard are you suggesting the criminalization of booing in a meeting (or the criminalization of organized booing)? Is that law to be limited to political meetings. What about a sports meeting? What bout at a comedy club –where people meet to hear a speaker share in their personal humour?

    Again there are double standards in the treatment of Arab Americans in Orange County. This is not good for the United States and it is not good for democracy.

  10. Stewart Mills - Sydney

    Irvine faculty members seek dropping of student charges
    February 10, 2011
    “(JTA) — Dozens of faculty members at the University of California, Irvine, have asked that criminal charges be dropped against 11 Muslim students who disrupted a speech by Israel’s U.S. ambassador.

    Five deans are among the 100 faculty members who signed a letter asking the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to drop the charges filed last week against the nine Irvine students and two students from the University of California, Riverside. Arraignment is set for March 11 in Santa Ana, Calif.”

  11. Clif Brown

    Rabbi Rosen – thanks for providing the link. I sent this message to the DA…

    Mr. Rackauckas, I was shocked to hear that you are bringing charges against the people who recently interrupted a speech by Israel’s Ambassador Oren. I have seen a video of the event that shows a peaceful demonstration of the right of free speech. Every individual who spoke out, immediately and voluntarily left the room, offering no resistance to security personnel nor insisting on continuing to speak.

    This is the United States of America where we value our right to speak openly and freely, particularly when we as individuals are opposed to organized power that is given numerous forums to express its views, often in closed venues where there is no possibility of active response or direct questioning, with the speaker deliberately shielded from any contest of his/her views.

    In the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, individuals in the crowds shouted out comments without being threatened with prosecution. You are making a crime of this, contradicting the protection provided by our Constitution.

    I urge you to retract the charges immediately.

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