1st Amendment News

UC Irvine: Muslim Student Union suspended for year for disrupting Israel ambassador’s speech

The Muslim Student Union has appealed University of California Irvine’s suspension of their group for one year, saying that the suspension would create a chilling effect on expression of ideas and hurt their efforts to combat marginalization. -db

The Orange County Register
June 15, 2010
By Deepa Bharath and Ellyn Pak

IRVINE, Calif.– UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union members say a year-long suspension came as a shock and that the university’s action would deny Muslim students a sense of community, according to a statement released Monday afternoon. The Union has appealed the university’s decision.

“Suspending the MSU would undoubtedly create a chilling effect and deprive Muslim students — both current and incoming — of a place where they can develop a sense of community with one another and with the broader UCI campus community,” said incoming MSU President Asaad Traina. “Depriving Muslim students a venue to associate jeopardizes their rights under the First Amendment and is an act of marginalization at a time when Muslim students and Muslim youth already feel besieged.”

Campus officials at UCI have banned the Muslim Student Union for one year and placed the organization on disciplinary probation for an additional year, according to the Jewish Federation Monday morning.

Federation officials say they obtained documents from the university through the Freedom of Information Act, which show that the Muslim Student Union has been suspended on campus effective Sept. 1.

MSU members said contrary to the federation’s statements, the student group has not been officially suspended.

The suspension is the result of a months-long internal review by the university following the arrest of 11 union students during Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on campus. Oren was repeatedly interrupted by the union members.

The group has appealed the decision, according to Husam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Members also denies that the Oren disruptions were an officially sanctioned MSU activity and that the students acted on their own.

Their attorney, Reem Salahi, said based on her understanding of the university’s policies and procedures, what has been issued is not a “ban,” but only a recommendation. The student group is waiting to meet with university officials.

“That said, I don’t agree with their actions at all,” she said. “This is nothing but collective punishment. All Muslim students on campus have been punished for the actions of a few.”

So far, UCI has not released any information about this ban and does not plan on doing so, said Cathy Lawhon, director of media relations.

“I do not have personal knowledge of this, as the process and the actions against the students and the group were privileged,” she said. “We value the privacy of our students and the process. This is a private and privileged process, and we will honor that process.”

Although other individuals and groups might discuss this issue, the university will not, Lawhon said.

A May 27 letter sent to the Muslim Student Union by Lisa Cornish, senior executive director of Student Housing, which was also copied to Dean of Students Rameen Talesh, details the violations that were believed to have been committed by the union and the disciplinary action taken against them. This document was obtained and provided to The Orange County Register by the Jewish Federation.

Cornish’s letter says the university’s decision to suspend the union was based on Google Group e-mails, personal observations by university officials including the police chief, observations by other students and “the fact that all of the disruptors retained the same attorney to represent them in the student conduct process.”

Cornish’s letter talks about how the Muslim Student Union held a meeting Feb. 3 prior to the ambassador’s visit and methodically discussed how to disrupt the event. The students talked about sending “the speaker a message – our goal should be that he knows that he can’t just go to a campus and say whatever he wants” and “pushing the envelope.”

They even voted on one method of action and said, “We all go through with this together insha Allah ta’ala, together as one MSU.”

Cornish’s letter states that the students planned every detail of the disruption including scripting statements.

The letter also goes into detail about what each one of the disruptors yelled out during Oren’s speech.

Cornish says in the letter that she has concluded based on her review that the Muslim Student Union and each of its authorized signers violated several university policies including “disorderly and lewd conduct, participation in a disturbance of peace or unlawful assembly, obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures or other University activities and other forms of dishonesty including … fabricating information, furnishing false information, or reporting a false emergency to the University.”

The letter orders the Muslim student union to cease operations from Sept. 1, a suspension that will be active until Aug. 31, 2011. After that date, the group will be placed on “disciplinary probation” for one more year. Any misconduct during that period could result in further action against the group or its members, Cornish’s letter states. Also, group members must collectively complete 50 hours of community service, which also needs to be approved by the university.

Ayloush said he is disappointed by The Jewish Federation’s decision to release information that was meant to be confidential.

“I’m puzzled at their attempt to score political points at the expense of the privacy of the students and the process that is internal to UCI,” he said.

To watch a YouTube video featuring a statement by Jewish Federation President and CEO Shalom Elcott, click here.

Ayloush called the university’s actions “unprecedented, heavy-handed and draconian.”

“It appears to be politically motivated to silence any future peaceful and legitimate criticism of Israel’s brutal practices,” he said. “This was nothing but a peaceful and symbolic protest of the Israeli Ambassador at UCI. It was a reflection of a growing worldwide campaign by human rights activists to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and their racism toward the Palestinian people.”

The Muslim students did not engage in fraudulent, immoral or criminal behavior, Ayloush said.

Shalom Elcott, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation Orange County, said he commends the university’s decision to follow through on this issue.

“The university’s disciplinary action regarding the MSU establishes an important and appropriate precedent and sends a powerful message to other universities across the nation.”

Elcott said the federation along with other campus and local Jewish organizations have worked with the university to resolve this issue.

Jeff Margolis, co-chairman of the federation’s Rose Council, said the university’s actions show that it has “taken seriously the on-campus actions of the Muslim Student Union and its serial disregard for university policies and civil discourse.”

Copyright 2010 Orange County Register Communications

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