A Misguided Prosecution

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, UCI Law

Everyone lost when the Orange County District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, decided to criminally prosecute the students who disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on the UCI campus. The students, who already had been punished by the university, now have misdemeanor convictions. A matter which should have been put to rest 18 months ago has become an even deeper source of division on campus and in the community. Tax dollars were spent – and will continue be spent as the appeals go forward – on a case that was unnecessary because the students already had been adequately punished by the university.

The students who disrupted the speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010 unquestionably acted improperly. They engaged in a
concerted effort to silence Oren and drive him from the podium.

I strongly disagree with those who try and defend the students as engaging in free speech. The First Amendment does not protect the right of people to go into an auditorium and try to shout a speaker down. I am confident that no court in the country would find that the disruptive students were engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment.

In their actions to silence Ambassador Oren, the students violated California law which makes it a misdemeanor offense to disrupt a public meeting. The jury which found them guilty faithfully applied this law to the facts of the case

But the fact that conduct violates a law does not mean that it should be prosecuted. Prosecutors, state and federal, constantly make choices about which crimes to prosecute. The Orange County District Attorney’s office surely prosecutes only a fraction of the cases where it has evidence that a law has been broken.

Each UCI student involved in this had already been disciplined by the university and the Muslim Student Union had been suspended from operating on campus for a quarter.

Although campus demonstrations are common across the country, rarely have they led to criminal charges or criminal conviction. Unless there is harm to persons or property – or a serious threat of this – district attorneys are almost always content to leave discipline to school authorities. This is exactly what Rackaukus should have done in this instance. No one was hurt and no property was damaged. After the disruptive students were escorted away, Ambassador Oren finished his speech.

A prosecutor’s primary duty is to do justice and the Orange County District Attorney failed this obligation when criminally prosecuting 10 students for disrupting an event on the University of California, Irvine campus.