A case involving a student protest outside a film screening and panel of Israeli soldiers speaking at University of California, Irvine (UCI) has been referred to the Orange County District Attorney (DA) to determine whether charges will be filed. The May 18 protest, conducted by members of numerous student organizations, aimed to draw connections between state violence at home and abroad.
UCI’s decision to pursue discipline and to refer the case to the DA threatens students’ basic First Amendment protections. This attempt to criminalize peaceful protest of Israeli policies is not new. The Orange County DA prosecuted the “Irvine 11” in 2011 for protesting then-Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in a case full of prosecutorial misconduct and discriminatory rhetoric.
As Palestine Legal and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) explained, the allegations in this case -- repeated in media accounts and by the administration -- that student protesters posed a “danger” to event participants has no basis in fact. Legal observers who were present during the protest dispute the allegations as false.
The selective punishment is glaring. Despite the participation of numerous student groups, only Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has been threatened with punishment by the administration. A similarly controversial speaker at UCI this month, conservative Milo Yiannopoulos, also faced a large student protest, but those protesters are not facing criminal investigation and administrative discipline.
This case repeats a familiar and disturbing pattern of university administrations suppressing constitutionally protected political speech on issues of Palestinian rights. The push to punish protesters at UCI is being spearheaded by the same Israel advocacy group who led a highly criticized and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to demand the UC Regents adopt a policy to conflate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.
Statement from Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights:
Yet again, UCI and Orange County are making headlines for their egregious suppression of support for Palestinian rights. We call this “the Palestine exception to free speech” to describe how authorities repeatedly punish and restrict protest activity that criticizes Israeli policy. This is a problem throughout the U.S., and in particular on the UCI campus. In this case, the only danger posed to event participants was the danger of having their ideas challenged.
Statement from NLG Legal Observer Jacob Berezin:
As a legal observer at the protest, I saw a diverse coalition of students - black, Jewish, Latino, Palestinian, and more – chanting and holding signs outside the film screening and Israeli soldier speaking panel. They were passionate in their disagreement with the speakers inside, but they were peaceful at all times, and respected police instructions. The protesters moved away from the door after organizers would not allow them to enter the hall, and they stayed outside for the duration of the event.
Statement from criminal defense attorney Tarek Shawky:
Public Universities have a responsibility to uphold free speech in order to facilitate the free exchange of ideas. Any attack on peaceful protests is an attack on the First Amendment intended to silence dissent. Our democratic society should criminalize those who target peaceful demonstrators, not those who advocate for human rights and dignity for an occupied people.