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Some afraid to speak up at UC Irvine

Muslim Student Union members wonder if their club has a stigma since the 'Irvine 11' charges and the 'chilling effect' atmosphere.

March 10, 2011|By Jon Dillingham, Special to the Daily Pilot

Editor's note: This updated version changes a description of UC Irvine student Hadeer Soliman's demeanor.

IRVINE — It was like any other day at UC Irvine's Cross-Cultural Center, a hub where campus groups congregate for official events or just hang out.

Some students were chatting socially while others were buried in their books. A small group gathered outside on prayer rugs facing Mecca.

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They belonged to UCI's Muslim Student Union, one of the most visible groups on campus. The MSU hosts some 300 events a year, many of which attract upward of 100 Muslim participants each. This past quarter has been no exception, but the union is approaching the next quarter, which starts at the end of the month, with some trepidation.

On Friday, the so-called "Irvine 11" are scheduled to be arraigned in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to disturb a meeting and then disturbing it.

The 11 students, eight from UCI and three from UC Riverside, made national headlines on Feb. 8, 2010. They were arrested then at UCI for allegedly disrupting an on-campus speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, with shouts of war crime accusations.

After a campus investigation into the MSU's alleged role in planning and orchestrating the disruption of Oren's speech, UCI officials punished the students and suspended the MSU for the first quarter of the 2010-11 academic year.

In February, Orange County District Atty. Tony Rackauckas brought criminal charges against the 11 men. If convicted, each faces probation, fines, and up to six months in jail, according to the district attorney's office.

The charges were supported by many Jewish leaders, including the respected Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, but a liberal Jewish group, as well as a consortium of interfaith leaders, denounced them as attempting to squash free speech.

MSU members now worry that a stigma has been attached to the group that will inhibit the exercise of free speech by its members.

"Coming from a suspension, a lot of people were wondering, 'Is it OK to wear my MSU shirt?'" said Hadeer Soliman, a senior and MSU board member active with the group for three years. "There's definitely a lot of apprehension these days about being vocal about one's opinion."

Soliman, 21, wore a hijab and spoke directly. Her cheerfulness masked a concern that casting the protest in a criminal light could keep other students from speaking their minds.

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