The L.A. Times Downplays the Irvine 11 Trial

The Los Angeles Times penned a misleading, strangely-argued editorial, criticizing DA Tony Rackauckas for prosecuting the “Irvine 11.”

The basic outline of the affair is now well-known: members of the Cal-Irvine Muslim Students Organization conspired to disrupt a campus speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. Eugene Volokh spells out the relevant statute under which the students were convicted: “‘Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character … is guilty of a misdemeanor.’ In re Kay (1970) held that, to be convicted under the statute, the prosecution must show ‘that the defendant [1] substantially impaired the conduct of the meeting by intentionally committing acts [2] in violation of implicit customs or usages or of explicit rules for governance of the meeting, of which he knew, or as a reasonable man should have known,’ and [3] ‘the defendant’s activity itself — and not the content of the activity’s expression — substantially impairs the effective conduct of a meeting.'”

The Times editorial makes three central arguments: (1) The Cal-Irvine administration punished the students, and therefore criminal charges were unnecessary; (2) The students’ behavior was “unacceptably boorish,” and “if college students faced criminal charges every time they misbehaved, we could fill the jails with undergraduates”; and (3) The affair represented the “worst of Tony Rackauckas,” who should not have brought the case to court.

Each of these arguments is without merit.

As to the first point, the paper’s own editorial undermines its argument: “The university responded by suspending the Muslim Student Union, which it found to be behind the planned disruptions, and disciplining some of the students. [emphasis added] Job accomplished.” Some students were disciplined. So, by the Times’ own account, the university elected not to discipline some guilty students. (The paper doesn’t explain why some of the guilty students didn’t deserve university punishment.) More to the point, as a general rule, the idea that anti-Israel campuses should be counted on to protect the free speech rights of pro-Israel speakers strikes me far-fetched.

On the second point: I can think of lots of terms to describe the anti-Oren students’ behavior—conspiratorial (for carefully planning out their anti-Oren actions); foolish (for leaving evidence of their conspiracy in e-mails); intolerant (for seeking to suppress free speech in a public address). But not “boorish”—which, in the context of a college campus, normally refers to rude behavior, often under the influence of alcohol. And the students in this case did more than misbehave, at least in the way we normally think of college disciplinary matters. In short, by describing the students’ as having “misbehaved” through “boorish” conduct, the Times misleadingly implies that the anti-Oren students engaged in typical, and very minor, college misconduct.

Finally, the paper faults the DA for bringing the case to trial. Yet its opprobrium would be better directed toward the state legislature. Many states don’t have this sort of statute—but California does, and I’d be hard pressed to imagine a case more on-point to the law than this one. In this instance, the system seems to have worked as it should—clearly guilty people were tried and convicted, and the judge, taking into account their otherwise good records, sentenced the offenders to community service rather than to jail.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

One thought on “The L.A. Times Downplays the Irvine 11 Trial”

  1. I’m not convinced that bringing this case to trial was the best means to secure justice, but I am thoroughly convinced that university administrators should not have the final say in adjudicating student behavior where violations of the law are involved. That means society’s civil and criminal law and even campus policy, as Prof. Johnson has shown for Duke.

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