By Amy Taxin
SANTA ANA — Eleven Muslim students charged with disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at a California university sought Friday to have the district attorney pulled from the case.
Prosecutors illegally obtained search warrants and focused on the religion of the defendants by dubbing the case the “UCI Muslim case,” said Dan Mayfield, one of the students’ attorneys.
“We are asking the attorney general of the state of California to step in and take over the case,” Mayfield said during a news conference after the students’ arraignment was postponed until April 15. The courtroom was packed with supporters.
Orange County Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said the allegations were not grounds to pull his office from the case. The students are each charged with one count of misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one count of misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting.
The students were arrested on Feb. 8, 2010, after shouting in protest at a speech at UC Irvine on U.S.-Israeli security, forcing Ambassador Michael Oren to halt his remarks for 20 minutes.
The case has stoked an intense debate about freedom of speech. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed the charges last month, prompting a public outcry by Muslim and civil rights advocates who say prosecutors were discriminating against students exercising their right to dissent, just as many other college-goers do without punishment.
Prosecutors contend the protest was a premeditated attempt to disrupt Oren’s lecture and infringed on the rights of the hundreds of people who had gathered on campus to hear him speak.
“We look forward to the actual evidence coming out,” Wagner said. “Anyone who was at the assembly could tell you, the First Amendment rights of the speaker and the audience were being violated clearly by these defendants, and that’s the principle on which we are prosecuting this case.”
Students and their advocates contend they did nothing wrong and have already been through a rigorous disciplinary process at the university, which revoked the Muslim Student Union’s charter for a quarter and placed it on two years of probation.
“These students merely stood up and expressed deeply rooted political dissent in a manner that was peaceful and tempered,” said Reem Salahi, one of the students’ attorneys.
Eight of the students attended UC Irvine and three were from the nearby campus of UC Riverside.
If convicted, they could face a sentence ranging from probation with community service and fines to up to six months in jail.
Jacqueline Goodman, one of the students’ attorneys, said there had been discussions about a possible plea deal but no agreement was reached. About 150 people packed the courtroom Friday to show support for the defendants, including relatives, community leaders and students.
Ojaala Ahmad, a senator with the student body government at nearby Cal State Long Beach, said her organization had passed a resolution in support of the defendants.
“If we as a student body government don’t speak up against it, it could be any one of our students from any of our universities next,” she said.