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Editorial: D.A. should back off UCI protesters

December 11, 2010

College campuses have a long tradition of embracing free speech, dissent and protest, even when it reaches an uncomfortable pitch the way it did at UC Irvine in February. They have long been relatively safe havens for young adults to air their views and make some noise, particularly in a country where exercising such rights is discouraged in the so-called "real world" of adult responsibility that awaits students the day after they toss their mortarboards.

Now sometimes these protests get a bit out of hand, but all in all, college is the time and place for (mostly) young Americans to test boundaries. And we also believe that unless a serious crime has occurred, it is largely up to the campus officials to issue discipline, when warranted.

That is why it appears that the Orange County district attorney's office overreacted by filing criminal complaints against 19 UC Irvine students and sympathizers who marched into the college administration building in support of campus janitors, making a good deal of noise along the way.

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Whistles were blown. Walls were banged. Voices were raised. Dumpsters were pushed against the administration building and into the street.

But nobody got hurt. And, in our view, that's what matters here. College students are an idealistic and passionate bunch, many of them susceptible to groupthink and overkill. But we're not sure if making them criminals for doing what so many students before them have done makes sense. What happened at UCI wasn't exactly a World Trade Organization conference.

Even so, some of the protesters were charged with disorderly conduct and false imprisonment (really) — charges that could mean up to a year in jail, probation or both. Those are harsh consequences and, from where we sit, seem more like a warning to all UCI students to tone down the campus demonstrations of late involving the Muslim Student Union and others.

We feel that UCI's administration, not the D.A., is the best party to handle the aftermath. Prosecutors should ask themselves whether their goal is to punish illegal behavior or send a message to students that they are better off staying in line rather than walking in one.

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