Did ‘Irvine 11′ practice ‘civil disobedience’?

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?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I have a different question: was the action taken against those causing the disruption based on their religion? How does their treatment compare with other situations such as Protesters disrupt UnitedHealth Group CEO’s campus speech, Jewish protester disrupts Netanyahu During Congressional Address, Protesters Disrupt Bush Speech in L.A. and many, MANY other cases.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    In most cases, when dealing with politicians, the person is forcibly removed from the scene and arrested.

    I would assume that the UnitedHealth Group story might yield the best investigation.

  • David T

    @Jerry: I can well believe that this case wasn’t treated the same as the cases you cite. But a quick read of your links indicates that, in each of those cases, the protesters disrupted the speech for ~ 5 min, but didn’t actually prevent the speaker from making his speech. In the UCI case, the successive interruptions consumed over a half an hour of time and succeeded in keeping the ambassador from speaking.

    The difference in the punishments may have been due to this difference.

  • Jerry

    I was not suggesting that there was an easy answer nor was my list an attempt to build a case, but rather I’m saying that reporters should have investigated and reported on whether or not the claim of religious discrimination in the article might be justified by comparing the panoply of disruptions we’ve seen over the past few decades.

  • David T

    Check out UCLA Prof. Eugene Volokh’s deft treatment of the legal issues involved at http://volokh.com/2011/09/23/uc-irvine-students-convicted-for-disrupting-speech/

  • David T

    @tmatt: you write “Muslim groups called this a denial of free speech — backed by many progressive religious groups and some interfaith networks.”

    Which progressive religious groups? I googled “UC Irvine ambassador progressive” but didn’t only found .. GetReligion. I always check my favorite liberal religious bloggers but the topic didn’t appear on the radaar.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    David T,

    The Episcopal Church, for example.

  • sari


    We haven’t had a Gandhi, King or Chavez in a very long time. Perhaps the journalists learned about civil rights movements at school and without context, and did not see the necessity to compare their assumptions with actual facts. Clearly that’s true for the students, who anticipated no consequences for their actions.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I think the reporters involved should have asked precisely the questions you raise, tmatt. Failure to understand that dimension of civil disobedience is a failure to understand one of its major sources of strength as a transformational tactic. Whether the comparison is legitimate or not (I don’t think it is), a reporter should have been asking those who drew it questions about how that comparison can be made. sari is probably right about why those questions were not asked.

  • Martha

    It’s a tough question to decide. Either a speaker invited to address a university has an unimpeachable right to be heard (in which case, those who disrupted David Irving’s attempt to speak at the University of Berkeley in the 90s were in the wrong) or free speech covers the rights of protesters, in which case you have to allow everyone to be heard – even if you don’t agree with them on political, religious or other grounds.

  • Dave

    [...S]hould the Times have [...] provided this historical background about the term “civil disobedience”

    Yes. I fear that “civil disobedience” has come to mean willful disruptiveness without consequences in many minds.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    It’s not obvious to me why this is a religion issue. Surely it’s a matter about ethnic and diaspora nationalisms defined only to a secondary degree by religion, right?

  • Dave

    Randy, it’s not about ethnic diasporas, it’s about civil disobedience. Civil disobedience as practiced within living memory in the United States has been so wrapped up with religion that ignorance about civil disobedience is tantamount to ignorance about religion.

    (That may not be GR’s answer to your question but it’s mine. ;-) )

  • Michael

    The SPLC’s charges against the FRC are not difficult to find.

    Here is a link: Family Research Council

  • Carter

    At this point I am not disagreeing with you just asking a question: why are these actions not civil disobedience in line with that of Thoreau (where Gandhi got it), Gandhi, King, Chavez, etc? Read several times and missed how/why you were making that claim.


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    They knowingly violated what they believed was an unjust law and then ACCEPTED the punishment, if and when convicted. That was part of the theory.