Freedom of Speech on Trial: The Irvine 11

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

As concerned civil libertarians watch the United States Constitution being shredded by those who would silence dissent, every day seems to bring new challenges. As is usually the case, Muslims are the primary victims and in the vanguard of the fight for justice. Of all the liberties we enjoy as Americans, the most important is freedom of speech. It is speech that will be the weapon used to fight for all other freedoms. Therefore its selective suppression is a cause for alarm.

Supporters of the Irvine 11 held a press conference this past Saturday evening at the Islamic Institute of Orange County (IIOC) to present the facts about this controversial case and to ask for action and solidarity on behalf of the students. The Irvine 11 are young Muslim students currently under indictment and facing arraignment for events that occurred on the evening of February 8, 2010. During that evening these students  interrupted invited speaker Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech numerous times during his presentation.

The meeting room in the IIOC was filled beyond its seating capacity and many in the audience had to stand in the back of the room.

Five speakers representing five different organizations presented the facts about this controversial issue.

They were: Edina Lekovic, Director of Policy and Programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC); Rachel Roberts of Jewish Voices for Peace; Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) of the Greater Los Angeles area; Father Wilfredo Benitez of St. Anselm’s church in Garden Grove, and Reem Salahi, a prominent civil rights attorney.

Ms Lekovic spoke of the great success enjoyed when supporters reached out to the non Muslim community. While the indicted students are all Muslim, the movement to defend them is truly an interfaith one. She said that the District Attorney has refused to meet with the support group. One of the suggestions she had for members of the audience was that they contact the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Orange County Human Relations Commission. Both of these organizations, while they have no power, have considerable influence and interact with other groups. The citizens of Orange County, when they are familiar with the facts of the case, do not support the case ideologically and do not want to see taxpayer money spent on what will become 11 separate trials.
Father Wilfredo Benitez spoke of the common Abrahamic faith of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He recited a poem he had composed after Operation Cast Lead called “The Tears of Gaza”. The recitation brought not a few tears to the eyes of members of the audience. He spoke of his love for all the names of God and of his sense of Justice. This sense of justice for the people of Palestine was the motivation for the student actions on February 8, 2010.

“I embrace and celebrate the Islamic faith. Islam is a religion of peace”.

Rachel Roberts, a young Jewish leader, spoke of her attendance at a youth leadership training course in New Orleans. She told of her action while there with others during this period to disrupt a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu.

As soon as attorney Reem Salahi called her group, she said, they sprang into action with their unqualified support.

Hussam Ayloush observed that the Irvine 11 should no more face charges than the unruly mob which gathered in front of a public building in Yorba Linda during a recent Islamic fundraiser. The chanting and hate speech of that particular evening has been excused by Islamophobes as an exercise in free speech.

Mr. Ayloush urged his audience to be proactive and to write letters to the editor and to call local radio stations. It is important, he said, to make a commitment.

Reem Salahi, a member of the defense team, took the podium to present the facts of the case.

The District Attorney, she said, had a year from the date of the offense, to bring an indictment against the students. Three days short of a year, the indictment was handed down. The students had already been subjected to disciplinary action by the University; there was no call to seek further action. There had been no physical violence during the evening of February 8; the students after they had their say walked to the security people to be led out of the room. There is no evidence that the citizens of Orange County want the students punished beyond the actions taken by the University, and certainly they do not want the expense of 11 separate trials. The matter appears to be a selective act against Muslims and an attempt to chill free speech for Muslims and non Muslims alike when political discourse involves criticism of Israel or US government policy.

Ms Salahi suggested that members of the audience attend the March 11 arraignment wearing black and wearing tape over their mouths.

During the question and answer session that followed, members of the audience who identified themselves as being related to one or more of the Irvine 11 used the opportunity to express their admiration for them and to assure them of their support.

The audience, though clearly supportive at the onset, seemed to grow even more energized and committed as the conference drew to a close.

“I am going to do all I can to help these students”, said one young woman.

“We can’t let the government get away with this, or there will soon be no more free speech” said another.

Readers who wish to learn more about the case of the Irvine 11 and who want to follow the case should access their web site at:<>.  There is an online petition available.

Presiding District Attorney Tony Rackauckas may be reached at: (714) 834-3600.


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