Student group at UC Irvine faces possible criminal charges after protest

CALIFORNIA — The University of California at Irvine’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter may be banned from campus and some members are facing possible criminal charges for protesting a film screening.

Students Supporting Israel organized a screening of “Beneath the Helmet” on May 18, a documentary on five Israeli soldiers. Students for Justice in Palestine believed the film to be propaganda for the Israeli military and organized a protest. Several other groups then joined SJP in the protest.

According to local media reports, the demonstrators tried to force their way into the room in which the screening was taking place, blocked people from leaving and shouted profanities and anti-Semitic statements. Film screening attendees, many of whom were women, felt intimidated and called the police who then escorted them to their cars, according to local media reports, which seemed to focus mostly on responses from SSI members.

SJP did not respond to requests for comment and a statement they posted on Facebook concerning the protest did not mention events at the protest or challenge media reports. The groups that joined them, including Jewish Voice for Peace and the Black Student Union also did not respond to the requests for comment.

The university referred the case to the District Attorney, who has received the case for review and their investigation into the incident has not yet been completed, Roxi Fyad, the spokesperson, said. The process to determine whether SJP should be banned from campus is being conducted by the university and is ongoing.

Chancellor Howard Gillman sent a campus-wide email about the incident explaining why they are taking action against the protesters. In the statement, Gillman said while the university will protect freedom of speech, “that right is not absolute” and reminded students that threats, harassment and defamatory speech are not protected. The protesters “crossed the line of civility,” he said in the statement. He also said film screening participants “feared for their safety.”

What exactly happened at the protest remains unclear, as both groups have different views of the event and some independent witnesses have said the protest did not occur the way it was portrayed by SSI. The incident report is unavailable as the investigation is still pending, according to the UCI police department.

The National Lawyer’s Guild of Los Angeles has sent a letter to Gillman contesting many of the media reports, basing their objections off the statements of their “legal observers”, who, at the request of groups, will accompany demonstrators to ensure their rights are protected, communicate with law enforcement and document any incidents.

The legal observers attest demonstrators did not block doors or use anti-Semitic language. They also say police did not have objections to where the protesters were standing. While SJP did attempt to enter the room, they realized someone was holding it shut and did not try to force their way inside, the statement said.

The NLG, which could not be reached for comment, said in the statement that observers provide an objective account of events at protests.

“As members of the legal community unaffiliated with the groups that were engaged in the action, we are shocked by the treatment these students are receiving after what appeared to be a vigorous but normal campus protest,” the statement said.

Tarek Shawky, the legal representative for some of the protestors, said that the students received notice their case was referred to the District Attorney’s office, but they have not yet learned if charges will be filed.

It is difficult to predict, he said, but since it was a peaceful protest with no accusations of violence, Shawky said he does not expect charges to be filed. However, he also that he wouldn’t be surprised if they were, referencing a similar previous protest at UCI in which charges were filed.

“I wouldn’t expect charges to be filed, but if history is any indication then it could happen,” he said.

If they are charged, Shawky expects it to be a misdemeanor which typically carries a penalty of up to one year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine. In the similar protest case that occurred at UCI previously, the demonstrators were charged with substantially disrupting a public meeting.

The process to determine if the organization should be banned from campus is still underway and is being conducted by the Office of Student Conduct. The process typically takes a considerable amount of time, made even longer by occurring during summer vacation when many students are away from campus, said Cathy Lawhon, a media relations specialist for the university.

Students Supporting Israel maintains that SJP shouted anti-Semitic statements and says they were in violation of University of California’s newly adopted policy against anti-Semitism. The policy was implemented in response to growing tensions on campus between Israel and Palestine supporters. In a Facebook statement, SSI said they “are not going to give in to their intimidation tactics and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

Kevin Brum, the president of the UCI chapter of SSI, said SJP members shouted anti-Semitic statements during the protest, including “you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” and “Israel is an apartheid state.”

The university system adopted the policy in March, altering it shortly before it was approved after facing opposition from faculty. Some faculty members opposed the inclusion of anti-Zionism, which focuses on the political implications of Israel’s existence in Palestine, in prohibited speech. The Academic Senate was a harsh critic of that inclusion, writing a statement petitioning for a change.

“We fear that an overly broad interpretation of ‘Anti-Zionism’ may have a chilling effect on reasonable and appropriate discourse on this political, social, and historical phenomenon,” read the statement, signed by Daniel Hare, chair of the Academic Senate.

The regents then removed the inclusion of anti-Zionism, opting instead to prohibit only “anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”

Hare said that since the change and the policy’s implementation, the faculty has seemed to react positively to the regulations.

Brum said he is a proponent of free speech and was initially concerned about the implications the policy could have, but was not after learned more about the policy.

“After doing more research, I realized it is not a free speech issue, it is an anti-discrimination issue,” Brum said.

Brum said it is difficult for people not present on UCI’s campus to understand the prevalence of anti-Semitic statements at the university. He says prohibiting anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism is appropriate because people often disguise anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism.

He also said he fights for other groups right to free speech, including Students for Justice in Palestine, as long as they are not using hate speech or being discriminatory.

“You can’t use free speech as an excuse to harass people,” Brum said.

In a statement by SJP posted on Facebook, they expressed feelings of discrimination by the administration, alleging that previous harassment of their group members went unpunished.

“In talking about providing a ‘safe environment’ for all students on campus, administration’s double standards must be acknowledged,” the statement said.

The NLG also commented on this in their statement, saying they believe the university is using comments from SSI as the basis of the allegations without substantiation, which they find to be discriminatory towards pro-Palestine groups.

“We believe [Gillman’s] public comments constitute a threat to the students’ due process rights and serve to sanction hostility against pro-Palestine and Black Lives Matter students, who are routinely subject to unprecedented levels of harassment and intimidation across the country, including on UC campuses,” the statement said.

Some experts also see this incident as emblematic of a trend in censoring pro-Palestine voices, including Palestine Legal, an organization “dedicated to supporting the movement for Palestinian rights,” according to their website.

“This case repeats a familiar and disturbing pattern of university administrations suppressing constitutionally protected political speech on issues of Palestinian rights,” according to a Palestine Legal statement concerning the protest.

Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights published a report last year concerning this issue, contending that university administrations often side against Palestinian groups in conflict and more stringently censor their behavior. In the report, they document 62 incidents of what they call “suppression of Palestine advocacy” on U.S. campuses, mostly between 2012 and 2015.

SPLC staff writer Evelyn Andrews can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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