Charging the Irvine 11

Students demonstrate against charging the Irvine 11

It’s astonishing to learn that the Orange County District Attorney’s office opted to charge 11 young people with “conspiring to disrupt a meeting” (LA Times Report here).  In filing the charges, the DA is resurrecting a failed event and giving many people a cause to rally around–including people, like me, who did not support the initial protest.

It’s not that the students didn’t plan to disrupt a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine (my school) last year.  It seems very clear that a group within the Muslim Students Union planned to attend Oren’s speech and, one at a time, interrupt the speaker by trying to shout him down.  You can find numerous clips of the event on youtube (here’s one), mostly posted by people who were offended by the action.

One after another, each disrupter was escorted from the room, and Oren ultimately delivered his speech.  I think the action overshadowed the demonstrators’ cause, and in no way advanced any kind of understanding of politics in the Middle East.  The sporadic shouts took attention off Israel and kept it firmly on the UCI campus.

It was very much like the Tea Party shout-downs at town meetings on health care the previous summer, but the Muslim students didn’t have large media outlets weighing in to portray their rudeness as understandable frustration.  Either way, it’s an awful model for democratic change.

Publicity was widespread.  I was at a conference far away when the event took place, but a relative emailed me a youtube link, asking what would happen to the students.  I hoped that the University would make it clear to the disruptive students that such conduct was unacceptable on a college campus, and that whatever sanction conveyed this message be mild enough so as not to disrupt the students’ education or careers.  (My colleague, Erwin Chemerinsky, figured all this out much faster and made the argument I was stumbling toward in an op-ed at the LA Times.)

Whatever sanctions were meted out to individual students are confidential, but the Muslim Students Union, which was found to have coordinated the event, was temporarily banned from campus.

I was involved on the periphery of the event.  I am currently Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy here, one of the groups that cosponsored Ambassador Oren’s visit.  I drafted a letter of apology on behalf of the Center, published on the Center’s website, which stated:

We apologize that the tempest at the event temporarily overshadowed the much more important issues that your talk addressed. As scholars concerned with democracy, we believe it is critical to question—and listen to—people with whom you have even the most substantial differences.  Sitting down and talking with opponents is always preferable to trying to silence them.

I’ll stand by this, and wish that the governments in the Middle East, including Israel, would as well.

As an event, the protest at the Oren speech was, uh, sophomoric and counterproductive.  The actions overshadowed the issues.  By shifting discussion from occupation and settlements in Israel and Palestine to the lack of civility in Irvine, the activists lost the battle.  Very little of the massive coverage addressed what they really cared about.  But stupid and boorish isn’t necessarily criminal.

In taking on this prosecution, the Orange County DA has given the students attention as a collective, generating sympathy for them in the process.  Protecting the campus as a site for open speech means making allowances for mistakes and overstatements, and finding ways to bring people back into the dialogue.  Criminal prosecution, fines, and time in jail don’t do this.  And every weekend on college campuses across the country students make worse–and potentially more damaging– mistakes without even a wisp of a political motive–or lesson.

OCDA Tony Rackauckas should rethink how he wants to use the strained resources of his office, the Courts, and the prison system.  While the university’s discipline gave each individual student the chance to rethink his conduct, the DA has turned them collectively into a symbol, the Irvine 11, a cause for others to rally around.  He should be reluctant to turn student activists into martyrs for free speech.

And where is UCI on all of this?  Well, the interim director of communications at UCI has issued a statement explaining that the University thought it was done with the issue, and this is all the initiative of the OCDA.

The District Attorney’s announcement reflects action independent of the University. He has subpoena power and access to information that we do not. From our perspective we thoroughly and fairly investigated and adjudicated the matter last year. Conduct violations were addressed fully, consistent with the guidelines of the Student Code of Conduct.

Since the university’s resolution of this matter in the summer of 2010, our campus community continues to build bridges of understanding and foundations for respectful and meaningful dialogue.

How’s that for tepid?  If the DA has additional information that merits such a charge, he hasn’t yet shared it with the public.

It’s time for a statement from our Chancellor.  I do not understand why he would let the opportunity to take a moral position for tolerance and civil discourse pass by.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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