September 23, 2011

"The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is deeply troubled by the criminal conviction of ten college students for protesting during a speech by the Israeli ambassador,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU/SC. “If allowed to stand, this will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state, and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges.

“Drawing the line between the competing free speech rights of a speaker and hecklers is a difficult and complicated matter, even for experienced First Amendment attorneys.  But bringing down the heavy sanction of criminal convictions for students whose protest fell in this difficult area will scare people away from undertaking even much milder acts of protest and expression.  UC Irvine officials have already addressed the issue through the University’s discipline system.  

The extraordinary resources required for the criminal prosecution and trial of these ten young men—including having the head of the district attorney’s homicide division leading the effort-- would have been better used to fight crimes that endanger the residents of Orange County than to chill speech and discourage student activism.

“We are also troubled by the unprecedented nature of the case.  We are unaware of any case where The OC DA pressed criminal charges over this type of non-violent student protest, even though similar disruptions have occurred with other speakers on the very same campus.  This raises the question whether the DA may have acted because of the students’ message, which would clearly violate the First Amendment.  Even if protests on college campuses occasionally cross a line from protected speech into conduct, prosecutors cannot selectively intervene to punish students who say things they do not like."