"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said "Irvine 11" defendant Aslam Akhtar, quoting the late Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even after misdemeanor convictions, Akhtar and the other UC Irvine students who disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States last year, felt they were the victims. That's not how the jury saw it.
They were all sentenced to three years probation and ordered to complete 56 hours of community service.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson said if the students complete the community service by Jan. 31, their probation can be lifted after one year. During the sentencing the judge cited the students' clean records and the fact that they acted on their beliefs.
The students, known as the "Irvine 11," were each charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one misdemeanor count of disturbing a meeting. Each student could have received up to six months in jail.
The jury began deliberations Tuesday in a case stemming from the interruption of a February 2010 speech by Ambassador Michael Oren. The students -- many of whom belong to the Muslim Student Union on campus -- stood up, minutes apart, and yelled slogans. Their actions were described by prosecutors as a "heckler's veto" of the speech, which was attended by about 500 to 700 people.
Prosecutors argued that the rules of the meeting were spelled out when the students were admonished by UCI professor Mark Petracca and UCI Chancellor Michael Drake after the first interruptions. Wagner had to prove to jurors that the students were aware of the rules, conspired to break them and had no other outlet to carry out their protest.
The prosecution told jurors the students acted as censors, blocking out a flow of ideas and infringing on the rights of people who came to listen to Oren. Attorneys for both sides even presented pie charts that broke down how much time the students demonstrated, the length of supporters' cheers and the time Oren spoke.
"This is yet another reaffirmation that Islamophobia is intensely and extensively alive and thriving in Orange County,'' said Shakeel Syed, of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "I believe this will be used as precedent now to suppress speech and dissent throughout the country. This is the beginning of the death of democracy."
Defense attorney Reem Salahi, who represented two defendants, claimed the students were warned before the event that disuprtions wouldn't be tolerated. That warning, the defense argued, effectively denied the students an outlet for free speech.
The case involves two California penal codes -- 403 and 182. Code 403 states, "Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character … is guilty of a misdemeanor."
Code 182 involves conspiracy to commit a crime.
UC Irvine officials released the following statement after the verdicts were announced: "UC Irvine, which fully and actively supports the lawful expression of free speech, completed its disciplinary procedures in this matter last year and considered those sanctions sufficient. We nurture a campus climate that promotes robust debate and welcomes different points of view."
The school revoked the Muslim Student Union's charter for a quarter and placed it on two years of probation.
Seven of the defendants are UC Irvine students -- Mohamad Mohy-Eldeen Abdelgany, 23; Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, 23; Joseph Tamim Haider, 23; Mohammad Uns Qureashi, 19; Ali Mohammad Sayeed, 23; Osama Ahmen Shabaik, 22; and Asaad Mohamedidris Traina, 19.
Three defendants are UC Riverside students -- Khalid Gahgat Akari, 19; Taher Mutaz Herzallah, 21; and Shaheen Waleed Nassar, 21.
An 11th defendant, UC Irvine student Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, 20, will have his case dismissed if he completes 40 hours of community service. In July 2011, Kebir accepted a plea negotiation.
Abdelgany was the president of the Muslim Student Union. He met with other members six days before the ambassador's speech to discuss options, according to prosecutors. A day later, he sent an e-mail to the group's message board that announced, "We will be staging a University of Chicago Style disruption of the Ambassador’s speech," according to the district attorney's office.
That's a reference to University of Chicago students who disrupted an appearance from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
On Feb. 6, 2010, investigators said Abdelgany sent another e-mail in which he told the Muslim Student Union's governing board that the disruptions must appear "to the outside" as individual acts, not the union.
At the speech, their shouts included, "Michael Oren, you're a war criminal," "You sir, are an accomplice to genocide," and "Michael Oren, murder is not free speech," according to the DA's office.
A walkout ensued and the 11 defendants were arrested.