Charges Against Muslim Students Prompt Debate Over Free Speech

New York Times
09.02.2011
By JENNIFER MEDINA

When administrators at the University of California, Irvine, decided to suspend the Muslim Student Union for a quarter over the disruption of a speech last year by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, most thought the latest controversy on campus had ended.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas of Orange County, however, disagreed — and filed misdemeanor criminal charges last week against the 11 student protesters, accusing them of disturbing a public meeting and engaging in a conspiracy to do so.

The charges have not only reignited campus debate about the event but have also prompted a feisty argument about the role of free speech on a college campus, in this case one whose politics can seem as complicated as peace negotiations in the Middle East.

When the ambassador, Michael B. Oren, came to speak last February, several students stood up, one at a time, and interrupted him with shouted complaints about Israel. When the repeated outbursts continued deep into Mr. Oren’s speech, the ambassador huddled with his security aides to decide whether to continue speaking. He did, but by the time the speech was over, 11 Muslim students had been arrested. The group became known as the “Irvine 11,” although three were students from University of California, Riverside.

Over the last decade, the university has become a symbol of what some Jewish groups say is a growing anti-Israel sentiment on campuses. But for others, the school is quickly becoming a symbol of problems Muslim students face when they are viewed as too outspoken.

“People are afraid to be seen as with us,” said Hamza Siddiqui, a senior and a leader of the Muslim Student Union. “It’s like they went after them, how do we know they aren’t going to come after us next? Everyone is afraid and looking over their shoulder.”

Mr. Siddiqui, 22, said even his parents have warned him to keep quiet and not involve himself too closely with the student group, worrying that he could get suspended or jeopardize his prospects for law school.

Because university officials are prohibited from asking about religion, it is impossible to know how many students are Jewish or Muslim. Many Muslim students come from the surrounding cities in Orange County, where there are vibrant Middle Eastern communities.

For years, Jewish and Israeli advocacy groups have said that the Muslim Student Union has fostered a hostile environment on campus. In 2007, the Office of Civil Rights of the federal Department of Education examined complaints from the Zionist Organization of America that the university was not doing enough to respond to the problem. The investigation cleared the campus administration of any wrongdoing. In 2009, the same organization complained that an event sponsored by the Muslim Student Union was used to raise money for an organization that helps Hamas, the Islamic militant group, in Gaza. The university asked the F.B.I. to investigate, but no charges were ever filed.

Much of the controversy on campus centers on Palestinian Awareness Week, which the Muslim Student Union has sponsored each spring. In the past, the week has included bloody Israeli flags and speeches delivered under signs that read “Holocaust in the Holy Land” and “Israel — the Fourth Reich.”

Many students came to dread the events, which some began to refer to as “hate week.” A few students have said they felt uncomfortable walking across campus wearing a Star of David or any other overtly Jewish symbol during the week. Some have had loud shouting matches, while others have chosen to stay home and avoid campus altogether.

By last winter, it seemed that the talk had been toned down and that much of the discomfort for Jewish students had subsided. But students said they caught wind of plans to interrupt Mr. Oren’s speech. The students who were arrested said that the protest had not been a Muslim Student Union activity, but an investigation by university officials concluded that that the group had coordinated the protest in an effort to shut down the event.

Similar outbursts have occurred during speeches by Israeli officials on other college campuses. But it appears that none prompted disciplinary actions from either the college or law enforcement officials.

Reem Salahi, a lawyer who represented the students in their administrative hearings, said that the decision to suspend the Muslim group was “very harsh” and that prosecutors were acting in a “very selective manner.”

“It’s not only the punishment, but the vilifying of these students that’s concerning,” Ms. Salahi said. “Whether it was rude or disrespectful is not the issue, the issue is that they were trying to air their grievances in a peaceful way.”

Muslim students say that they have faced stricter scrutiny from the administration than other student groups and that they, too, face harsh language. Last spring, several students complained about a large poster on campus comparing the Muslim Student Union to Hamas and Hezbollah. A similar flier included a photograph of several students.

Because the group was suspended this fall, it was difficult to recruit new members. Now, some leaders said, some students are reluctant to get involved out of fear of repercussions.

Since the charges against the students were filed on Friday, the district attorney has come under fire from several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The chancellor’s office has not taken any position on the prosecution, but on Wednesday, 100 faculty members urged Mr. Rackauckas to drop the charges.

But Mr. Rackauckas is showing no signs of backing down.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, Susan Schroeder, said in an interview: “It seems that the basic question is what if we substituted different groups — what if this were the Klu Klux Klan who conspired to silence a speech by Martin Luther King.”

Most Jewish groups involved on campus have avoided taking a position on whether the protesters should be prosecuted, although some outside groups say they support the action.

Matan Lurey, a senior and the president of Hillel, the largest Jewish student group at the university, said he worried that there could be a backlash from students who want to blame Jewish groups for the district attorney’s actions.

“I am very aware that we had nothing to do with that process, but the line can get blurry in other people’s minds,” Mr. Lurey said. “I am worried this could cause more tension when things are getting better.”

Full article

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