Muslim Student Group May Face Suspension at Irvine

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
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The University of California, Irvine has taken a step toward suspending a Muslim student organization over it says was the group’s role in orchestrating the disruption of a campus speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

A disciplinary report by a university administrator recommended that U.C. Irvine’s Muslim Student Union be suspended for a full year. The report argues that the campus group organized the protest at Oren’s February speech, in which students repeatedly shouted at the ambassador, accusing him of “propagating murder” and being “an accomplice to genocide.”

The MSU, which maintains that the students involved in the protest were acting independently, has appealed the finding. The proposed sanction still requires approval from a number of university administrative bodies.

“I think the university has taken an important step that will be precedent-setting, that not only deals with free speech issues but talks about the kind of campus climate that is expected,” said Shalom Elcott, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

The federation obtained the disciplinary report, which was originally issued in May, via a public records request and released it to the press. The report was posted online by The Orange County Register on June 14.

During the February incident, video of which circulated widely on the Internet, protesters repeatedly interrupted Oren’s speech by rising one at a time at various points in the address and shouting at the ambassador, before being escorted peacefully out of the room by campus police to a mix of cheers and jeers from audience members. Eleven students were arrested, including eight from U.C. Irvine and three from the University of California, Riverside. At one point during the disruptions, the ambassador left the hall. He eventually returned and finished his address, but a planned question-and-answer session was canceled.

The Israeli Embassy said that Oren had no comment on the U.C. Irvine administrator’s report. A spokesperson at Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles said: “The consulate respects the decision of the campus.”

The MSU at U.C. Irvine has been a longtime target of criticism from Jewish groups, particularly for its annual week of anti-Israel events. At campus MSU events, one regular speaker, Amir Abdel Malik Ali, has praised Hezbollah and Hamas and vowed that Muslims will fight Israel “until we are either martyred, or until we are victorious.” Some Jewish students at the school also have complained of harassment by MSU members.

In 2004, the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that U.C. Irvine had violated Jewish students’ civil rights by not taking action against the MSU. And in 2009, U.C. Irvine asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into allegations that an MSU-sponsored event had been used to raise money for Hamas. No action was taken against the MSU in either case.

The Oren disruption, however, further raised the public profile of the ongoing controversy at U.C. Irvine.

In a press release, the MSU stated that the protesters at Oren’s speech were acting independently of the student group. But evidence cited in the university disciplinary report, issued May 27 by Lisa Cornish, senior executive director of student housing at U.C. Irvine, appears to suggest that the disruptions were planned by members of the MSU.

Citing e-mails circulated within an MSU Google Group, or listserv, and other documents, the report says that members of the MSU discussed plans for the disruption at a meeting five days before Oren’s speech. According to the report, minutes of the meeting included the determination that “our goals should be that he knows that he can’t just go to a campus and say whatever he wants.”

The report says that the MSU “planned every detail of the disruptions,” citing documents that laid out plans for the protest. Protesters were to be split into four groups, and the head of each group was in touch with a coordinator via cell phone. Some protesters were chosen to disrupt the speech regardless of the reaction of the administration and campus police, others were instructed to interrupt only if disruptors were simply asked to leave the premises. A third segment of the protesters was supposed to remain in the room and cheer the disruptors. Phrases shouted by protesters were scripted and written on index cards.

Reem Salahi, an attorney representing the MSU in the disciplinary proceedings, told the Forward that she could not comment on the specific evidence referred to in the report due to the ongoing nature of the proceedings, but she said that overall the evidence presented was “problematic.”

“It was definitely not indicative of the entire story at all,” Salahi said. She said that some of the report’s findings of fact would be contested during the appeals process, and that new evidence would be submitted.

Salahi also criticized the Jewish Federation of Orange County for releasing the disciplinary report, since a number of administrative steps remain before the suspension can be invoked.

“It’s unfortunate that the Jewish federation decided to get that information and release it at this point,” Salahi said.

The recommended suspension of the MSU could begin September 1, but university disciplinary procedures provide a series of recourses for the group. The MSU has already filed an appeal of the “informal resolution” made in the report with the dean of students. Further, the sanction can also be appealed to the university’s Judicial Review Board, which will recommend a course of action to the dean of students. The decision of that dean can be appealed to the vice chancellor for student affairs.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com






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