A group of University of California students will learn next week whether they've been charged with criminal offenses for repeatedly interrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last year.
A grand jury convened by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas reportedly has been weighing a possible indictment of the UC Irvine and UC Riverside students, believed to be members of the Muslim Student Union. Rackauckas has until Tuesday, one year after the incident occurred, to charge them.
The case of the so-called "Irvine 11" has brought to light an unexpected limitation of the First Amendment. Heckling may be a time-honored tradition on college campuses and state houses nationwide, but it not necessarily protected by the Constitution.
"I think it is quite clearly accepted that there is no First Amendment right to shout down the speech of another, especially in an organized talk," UC Berkeley Law School Professor Jesse Choper told AOL News.
On Feb. 8, 2010, Oren tried to deliver a speech at UC Irvine to a room of 500 people. He was interrupted four times by audience members who stood up and shouted at him before he walked off stage. Oren eventually returned, only to be interrupted another six times. After each incident, the offender was escorted out of the room and arrested by campus police. (Watch the cringe-worthy video of the incident below.)
In response, the schools reprimanded the offending students and UC Irvine suspended the Muslim Student Union through December. The student group will be kept on probation until December 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The recent news that the students may also be charged with criminal offenses has elicited an uproar from the community. On Tuesday, protesters marched in front of the DA's office in Orange County, wearing head scarves and duct tape over their mouths. A group of community leaders, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, signed an open letter to Rackauckas on Wednesday, imploring him not to indict the students. The same day, the Times wrote an editorial with the headline, "Free the Irvine 11."
"There is no First Amendment right to keep a speaker from being heard in this way, but that said, I don't think there's a need for criminal charges either," Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine's law school, told Southern California Public Radio. "I think the university has disciplined the students. I don't think this needs to be made into a criminal matter."
Chemerinsky and Choper both point to an Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion to illustrate the limits of free speech.
Carol Sobel, an attorney representing six students who were subpoenaed, told Southern California Public Radio that grand juries are rarely convened to consider misdemeanor charges. She suspects they're weighing a conspiracy indictment, based on the idea the outbursts were planned ahead of time, a charge the Muslim Student Union has denied.
But because grand jury proceedings are confidential, free-speech advocates on both sides of the lectern will have to wait until next week to read the next chapter in the case of the Irvine 11.