Right up front, let me state that this post is not about the “Irvine 11″ case or even its outcome.
Instead, I want to ask a question about The Los Angeles Times story reporting the outcome of this controversial trial and, in particular, the way in which this news report quoted a key element of the arguments made by those who defended the accused.
For those who are not familiar with this case, here is the top of the Times report as background:
In an emotional conclusion to a case that generated national debate over free speech rights, an Orange County jury has found 10 Muslim students guilty of criminal charges for disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on the UC Irvine campus last year.
The students, who faced up to a year in jail on the misdemeanor counts, were sentenced to three years of probation, 56 hours of community service and fines. Each was convicted of one misdemeanor count of conspiring to disrupt Oren’s Feb. 8, 2010, speech and a second count for disrupting it.
Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who was in the courtroom for the verdict Friday, said the students’ behavior amounted to censorship and “thuggery.”
“In a civilized society,” he said, “we cannot allow lawful assemblies to be shut down by a small group of people using the heckler’s veto.”
On one side, Muslim groups called this a denial of free speech — backed by many progressive religious groups and some interfaith networks.
On the other side, defenders of the verdict, including some Jewish groups, noted that the hecklers openly violated a state law and, in fact, planned to do so. Instead of asking tough questions during the question-and-answer period — as planned by organizers — they prevented the speaker from being able to speak by shouting him down. Thus, some called their actions “hate speech.”
Once again, however, my question is journalistic and linked to questions of accuracy and context. My questions concerns the following section of the news report:
The case centered on conflicting views of who was being censored — Oren, who had been invited to the campus, or the students who took turns shouting him down as he tried to give a speech on U.S.-Israeli relations.
Prosecutors contended the students broke the law by organizing in e-mails and meetings to disrupt Oren’s speech. Defense attorneys argued that a guilty verdict in the case would stifle student activism at colleges nationwide. They likened their clients’ actions to the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. …
“When history books are written and this case comes to its final conclusion … the Irvine 11 will stand alongside other civil rights heroes,” said Ameena Qazi, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.
Here is my question. A crucial aspect of the “civil disobedience” methods taught by Gandhi, King, Chavez and others was thire willingness to commit violate laws that were considered unjust and then to willingly accept the punishment, in part to spotlight the sincerity or even righteousness of the cause.
In this case, the “Irvine 11″ planned an illegal demonstration, carried it out, were arrested and now their defenders are are saying that (a) they should not have been found guilty and (b) should not have been convicted of the crime.
Now, whatever one thinks of their actions, should the Times have (a) provided this historical background about the term “civil disobedience” or (b) have quoted the views of someone who questioned this connection and, of course, its claim of moral equivalence?
Obviously, defenders of the “Irvine 11″ have every right to draw the analogy. That is not my point.
My point is a question of history and fact (and, thus, journalism). This may have been an act of “civil disobedience,” loosely defined. But it was not an act of “civil disobedience” as defined by Gandhi, King and others who intentionally walked in their footsteps (including protestors against the death penalty, apartheid, abortion, nuclear weapons and a host of other causes).
What should the editors have done if anything?