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Muslim Students in California Charged with Disrupting Speech by Israeli Ambassador

As some Americans across the United States protest the upcoming Congressional hearings on Muslim extremism, one Muslim community in the western state of California is fighting what they believe is a case of discrimination.

Supporters of 11 university students claim that the district attorney of Orange County California, near Los Angeles, is unfairly prosecuting students who were exercising their Constitutional right to free speech. But the district attorney's office says the students broke the law by disrupting a university-sponsored event.

At this emotionally charged community meeting, there is anger and the feeling that 11 people have been treated unfairly by the local prosecutor.

"The community has to lead the effort to expose these hypocrites, these bigots, these anti-Muslim bigots, these racist people," said Hussam Ayloush. "We cannot continue to suffer from them."

Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says 11 University of California students are victims of discrimination after trying to peacefully protest last year. During a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, students stood up one by one and spoke out against him. They were escorted out by security and the university briefly suspended the Muslim Student Union.

Almost a year later, the Orange County district attorney brought criminal charges against 11 students, accusing them of planing and disrupting the ambassador's speech.

"All they did was they exercised their activism," said Moutaz Herzallah.

Moutaz Herzallah’s son is one of the students who spoke out during the ambassador’s speech. His son faces criminal charges.

"I said, 'Wow, my son is a hero.' I told my wife, 'Even if they put him in jail as a hero that is fine; I am proud of that,'" he said.

Because of the criminal charges an attorney for the so-called "Irvine 11", Reem Salahi, is asking her clients not speak to the media. She condemn's the district attorney's actions.

"It is discriminatory, it is selective, and it is primarily because these students are Muslim," said Salahi.

More than 100 professors from the Universities of California, Irvine and Davis have asked that the charges be dropped, saying the students have been disciplined by the university and that should be enough.

Jewish and Christian community leaders, including Reverend Wilfredo Benitez, also attended the town-hall meeting to show their support.

"Singling out one particular group exercising free speech delivers a severe blow to the cordial and celebratory interfaith environment many of us have been working," said Benitez.

But Susan Schroeder, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, says this is not about the First Amendment right to free speech.

"None of the 11 are being prosecuted for protesting. In fact, many other people had protested that night and they did not violate the law. It is not a violation of law to protest and speak their mind - whether it is offensive, whether we like their speech or not like their speech. It is against the law to disrupt the speech in a lawful meeting," she said.

"The free speech protection in the U.S. Constitution is not absolute. It does not mean that any time you do anything that involves words, you will be free for any sort of legal trouble," said constitutional law professor Aaron Caplan of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles

He says how and where a protest takes places matters. "In order to be guilty of disrupting this meeting under California law, it is not enough that they are simply people at the meeting who were disturbed or unhappy or disagreed with you," he said. "You have to have done something that objectively affected the ability of the meeting to go forward."

Susan Schroeder of the Orange County District Attorney's Office says the protesters caused a major disruption.

"It was a scheduled event for an hour," said Schroeder. "The ambassador could not finish his speech. He was disrupted many times. In fact, about 30 minutes into it, he was still saying the same joke. He could not finish the speech. The speech was cut short."

As to whether the district attorney's actions are discriminatory, legal scholar Aaron Caplan said, "If a defendant can prove there is a pattern and a practice on the part of the government, they only prosecute people of one minority group and not another for the exact same actions, that they could be a violation of the equal protection clause that says everyone needs to be treated equally before the law. It is very difficult to prove that there is selective prosecution."

If the charges are not dropped, a jury will decide whether the students were prosecuted because of the content of their speech or whether their actions caused enough of a disruption to have violated the constitutional rights of others. If they are found guilty of the charges against them, the 11 students could be fined, tasked with community service or sentenced for up to six months in jail.