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US students convicted for disrupting speech
Ten students to do community service for protesting against Israeli envoy's speech at a California university last year.
Last Modified: 24 Sep 2011 04:04
Verdict against students who protested against Israeli war has caused furore over free-speech rights [Liberty Zabala]

Ten US college students from Southern California have been convicted of unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the US last year and placed on probation.

Friday's verdict followed two full days of deliberations by a six-man, six-woman jury in a case that has touched off a furore over free-speech rights at the University of California at Irvine.

The students, who were ordered to perform 56 hours of community service, are to remain on probation for three years. But they could have that reduced to a year once they complete the community service.

Charges against an 11th defendant have been tentatively dismissed.

"We're going to continue fighting this. We're going to appeal this decision," supporter Marya Bangee, 25, said outside the court.

"These men to us represent our struggle for civil rights in this country and for them to be found guilty and sentenced for speaking their minds is devastating for us all."

The case stems from a protest organised by the Muslim Student Union at the university against a February 8, 2010, speech there by Michael Oren, the Israeli diplomat.

Pro-Palestine protest

Prosecutors say the students interrupted his appearance by shouting statements such as "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!" and "It's a shame this university has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself".

The US constitution guarantees Americans the right to freedom of speech.

But the Orange County district attorney's office, which is prosecuting the case, has said the students - rather than exercising their own free-speech rights - were interfering with the right of Oren to be heard.

 
The students were condemning Israel's war on Gaza

The total amount of time taken up by the students' disruptions was approximately only one minute, an attorney for the group said.

The charges drew an outcry from civil liberties advocates and Southern California's Muslim community, who say the students were unfairly singled out for prosecution even though similar protests are common at universities and do not result in prosecution.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Berkeley, California, Liz Jackson from Students for Justice in Palestine, said that this conviction was a "disgrace to the criminal justice system".

"This is a political witchhunt trial that reminds me of what I studied about McCarthyism in the 1950s," she said.

Arab and Muslim students are more vulnerable when they protests because of Islamophobic sentiments, but trials like this are actually encouraging more students to speak out against Israel, Jackson said.

"There is so much outrage on Facebook, over email - students feel outraged and emboldened now."

Spectators began crying in the packed courtroom in Santa Ana, California, when the verdicts were read by a court clerk, and about 50 people left the courtroom visibly upset.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at UC Irvine, has also criticised the criminal charges as heavy-handed.

The Muslim Student Union was suspended by the university for an academic quarter and put on probation for two years.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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