(Updated: 8:30 p.m. EDT, September 25, 2011)
In an unusually harsh verdict for a student protest, 10 Muslim college students who interrupted a speech by an Israeli diplomat last year at the University of California at Irvine were found guilty of misdemeanors on Friday.
The Orange County district attorney's decision to prosecute the case prompted a national debate over the nature of free-speech rights on college campuses. Protests that interrupt a speaker are not uncommon at University of California campuses, but nonviolent protesters are rarely charged with crimes.
The students interrupted a February 2010 speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, by taking turns standing up and shouting accusations that Mr. Oren was a murderer and a war criminal. Mr. Oren was eventually able to finish a shortened speech, but he left before taking questions.
On Friday, a jury convicted the students of misdemeanors under a California statute that prohibits anybody from willfully disrupting a lawful meeting. A judge sentenced them to a year of informal probation, provided they each complete 56 hours of community service.
Seven of the students were from the Irvine campus and three were from the University of California at Riverside. Charges against an 11th student protester were dropped in July pending completion of community service.
The district attorney who brought the case, Tony Rackauckas, said in a statement that the students had engaged in "organized thuggery" by conspiring to censor Mr. Oren's speech. The jury's verdict sent a message that "we will not tolerate a small band of people who want to hijack our freedoms," he said.
The case is likely to be appealed. Activists and civil-liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the decision, saying that it would have a chilling effect on controversial speech in California.
"The prosecution was completely disproportionate to the original incident," Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who runs a blog on student activism, wrote in an e-mail. The idea that a brief, nonviolent disruption of campus activity would leave a student with a criminal record is "astonishing," he said.
Mr. Johnston said the prosecution is part of a pattern of California university officials overreacting to student protests, creating a charged environment on campuses. Roughly 250 student activists were arrested in California in the 2009-10 academic year, he said, "evidence that student-administration relations have gone profoundly off the rails."
But university professors were among those who argued that the student protesters should be spared criminal charges. One hundred University of California faculty members signed a letter urging the district attorney to drop the charges and that university sanctions were punishment enough.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of Irvine's law school, which helped sponsor the speech, said that although the free-speech rights of the student protesters were not violated, the criminal prosecution was a "terrible mistake."
"It's unnecessary and it's harmful," Mr. Chemerinsky told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. "It's unnecessarily divisive. Now this keeps an open wound."
Robert M. O'Neil, a First Amendment scholar and former president of the University of Virginia, said Mr. Chemerinsky's reasoning about the wisdom of the prosecution was sound. But he said the case was distinctive for a few reasons. "While even an intense student protest on a volatile issue such as this one would normally be First Amendment protected, absent physical obstruction or interference, several factors make this case an unusual one and closer to the line," he wrote in an e-mail.
For one, the targeting of an official speech by an ambassador merits special scrutiny, just as protests within a certain distance of U.S. embassies are far less likely to be permitted, much less protected, he said. "An ambassador who is credentialed to the U.S. is entitled to some degree of additional defense and protection."
Second, Irvine officials have probably put in place clear regulations regarding expressive activity on campus, given the campus's history of Middle East-related controversies, he said. Because the University of California has autonomy under the state constitution, any regulations that prohibited the protest could be given additional deference, he said.
Correction (9/25, 11:25 a.m.): Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York, was inaccurately quoted in the original version of this article. He said, "The prosecution was completely disproportionate to the original incident," not "the entire incident." The article has been updated to reflect this correction.