Charges Against Muslim Students Prompt Debate Over Free Speech
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
As students walked through campus one recent afternoon, most hardly batted an eye at the colorful fliers advertising some coming campus events. They may have missed the lecture “Islam the Misunderstood Religion.” But they could pick up a pamphlet about Islamic philosophy from a nearby table — where signs proclaimed “Free
During the fall quarter, while the suspension was in place, none of this kind of activity by the Muslim Student Union had been allowed.
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
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
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 “
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.
“It’s the saddest thing to have to tell someone, yes it’s O.K. and it’s safe for you to come,” said Hadeer Soliman, a 21-year-old senior, who added that just a fraction of the group’s events are focused on Palestinians. “When you have the university sending out an e-mail to all the freshman saying that we’re suspended, that doesn’t help anything.”
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
But Mr. Rackauckas is showing no signs of backing down.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, Susan Schroeder, said in an interview
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.”
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