The district attorney of Orange County, California, recently filed charges against 11 members of a Muslim student group who disrupted a speech by Israel’s U.S. ambassador at the University of California at Irvine last February. The charges, filed just before the statue of limitations deadline, include one count each of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one count each of disturbing the meeting. Those charges are in addition to disciplinary measures taken by the University of California. Faculty members, local faith and civic leaders and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times have called on District Attorney Tony Rackauckus to drop the charges, which they describe as overkill.
The Jewish Week spoke to Marc D. Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s associate senior counsel for legal advocacy about the controversial case.
Q: Do you find this a complicated legal case or one that is clear-cut?
A: I don’t see a constitutional free speech issue, particularly. There’s no right to disrupt someone else’s meetings; [it’s] antithetical to whole notion of a democratic society and free speech to allow a small group to dominate a forum and exclude speech by virtue of noisemaking. So that’s very easy, cut and dried.
The second question, what’s not cut and dried and reasonable people can disagree about is whether it’s prudent to bring criminal charges after the university already completed its disciplinary process.
It doesn’t pose any legal questions; the DA is not bound by the university’s actions nor is he precluded from enforcing general laws against what goes on the grounds of the university. But whether it is a useful use of prosecutors’ resources is a debatable question.
They are not alleging, in this case for example, that Jewish protestors who disrupted a Palestinian speaker were not prosecuted and that shows selective prosecution. There was a rather naïve claim by a Jewish quote unquote progressive group [Jewish Voice For Peace] that they disrupted [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu and weren’t prosecuted, and that shows favoritism.
No. It’s two different jurisdictions. What goes on in Louisiana has no bearing on California. In any event they were wrong to try to prevent the prime minister from talking; there are different ways to protest without preventing the speaker from being heard.
Yet is there something troubling about the case?
What’s a little bit troubling, and I don’t say that it justifies the charges in and of itself, [is the notion] that disruption is somehow protected freedom of speech. Therefore, it may be necessary to make the point further that no, disruption is not an exercise of free speech. Now, notwithstanding that, the prosecutor could have said well, they’ve been punished enough [by the university]; that’s a fair argument. You could argue it’s overkill for the prosecutor to come in, but that doesn’t make it illegal for the prosecutor to decide otherwise.
Does the fact that this was not a spontaneous protest but a coordinated effort to stop the meeting give it more gravity from a legal standpoint?
It adds an extra charge and it goes to the prosecutor’s discretion. He could say, look [if] these are kids who were drunk and it was the spur of the moment, OK. [But] the fact that it wasn’t makes it more serious and [the prosecutor may feel he] needs to make statement about the way public meetings are conducted in California. It doesn’t mandate that he act nor does it prohibit him. It’s a factor to be considered.
Will we see more of these issues as organized protest against Israel spreads, particularly if there is an acquittal?
It’s clear that anti-Israel activities are not going to fade way; it’s clear that they are organized globally or more locally, [but] whether they will take the form of disruption remains to be seen. The fact that these people were disciplined with fairly serious sanctions, suspensions and entries on record … those are pretty serious sanctions for anyone to go on with an educational career. When you are applying to graduate schools, that’s not something that would make you more attractive as a candidate.
If there is an acquittal — it depends on the grounds. If the court says as a matter of law [that] shouting down a speaker is OK, that would be a very dangerous precedent. But it’s pretty inconceivable a court would hold that.