Irvine 11 verdict vindicates poor protest strategy

An Orange County jury found 10 students guilty of two misdemeanor offenses for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, at the University of California, Irvine (my school), more than a year ago.  Superior Court Judge Peter A. Wilson sentenced the students to three years of unsupervised probation.  If the students each complete 56 hours of community service within the year, the probation will be suspended.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukas’s foolish choice to charge and prosecute the students for an uncivil disruption of a campus activity stretched the news cycle for the event over more than a year, gave a name and a public profile to a group of young activists, and created a national audience for their views.  It’s hard to think that this is what he had in mind when he decided to charge them.  (A cynical view would suggest that the District Attorney saw this as a good issue for building his own political career.)

In contrast, the DA’s decision helped the protest succeed far beyond what the activists could have reasonably expected.  Members of the Muslim Students Union wanted to challenge Ambassador Oren’s visit in particular, and Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians in general.  The “popcorn protest” (staggered fits of shouted denunciations) interrupted the talk, as one after another of the protesters was escorted out of the auditorium.  The Ambassador ultimately delivered his remarks and took questions.

Take a look at the video of the disruption, and see if you think the students’ arguments got out clearly:

The university disciplined the disruptive students (individual penalties are not public), and banned the Muslim Students Organization from campus for one quarter for organizing the protest and concealing its efforts.

It could have ended there, but the DA rescued the students’ cause by charging them.  A simple Google search for news of the Irvine 11 verdict generates nearly 500 hits at this moment, across the country and around the world.  The students got to make their claims about Israel and its ambassador in court, getting far more attention than they would have otherwise.  The trial provided a focus for organizing for the past eighteen months or so, as supporters forged ties with sympathetic lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and journalists, and made their case broadly.  With an appeal on the horizon, this will continue, as activists plan next steps in response to the verdict.  (See for details.)  I expect that they will organize around the selective prosecution of this protest, which surely looks to be based on the ideas, rather than the actions, of the protesters, and make extremely credible charges about the DA’s political motivations.  In short, DA Racklaukas did more for the protesters’ cause than they were able to do on their own.

DA Rackaukas should have to answer questions about his office’s resources, when there are quite serious crimes (one recent example) that demand his office’s attention.  Judge Wilson’s sentence, taking into account the actual magnitude of the crime and the sincerity of the students’ beliefs, hardly justifies the past year’s effort by the DA’s office.

[We’ve discussed this case before, here, here, here, and here.]

Meantime, we should wait a second before signing onto all the claims the defendants are making about their actions and the law.  Just because DA Rackaukas is wrong, it doesn’t mean that the Irvine 11’s supporters are all right.  Free speech, as my colleague Erwin Chemerinsky has noted, doesn’t mean unrestricted freedom to shout down another speaker.  (Were the proto-Tea Party shout-downs at health care town meetings the best expression of American democracy?)  Sincere beliefs don’t immunize a person from criminal prosecution–even if we agree with those beliefs.  Stop for a second and think about someone whose views you despise who could make exactly those arguments.

And calling an action “civil disobedience” doesn’t protect the disobedient from trial or penalty.  (Henry Thoreau went to jail before someone paid his poll taxes; Martin Luther King went to jail dozens of times.)

I think the American Civil Liberties Union’s reaction, as reported by the Daily Pilot, was only partly right:

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said he is “deeply troubled” by the conviction and by the district attorney’s decision to charge the students with a crime.

“If allowed to stand, this 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,” Hector Villagra said.

“The extraordinary resources required for the criminal prosecution and trial of these 10 young men — including having the head of the district attorney’s homicide division leading the effort — would have been better used to fight crimes that endanger the residents of Orange County than to chill speech and discourage student activism,” he said.

Will the prosecution and sentencing have a chilling effect on free speech on campus, as Mr. Villagra suggests?  I’m not convinced.  Student activists for any cause will have learned that a small splash on campus can garner national (and international) attention and provide a stable platform for their ideas and organizing efforts.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to Irvine 11 verdict vindicates poor protest strategy

  1. Pingback: Who pays for free speech? | Politics Outdoors

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