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Conspiracy Charges Filed Against Muslim Students

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - A group of Muslim students accused of disrupting a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, were charged Friday with misdemeanor conspiracy counts, ending speculation about what would come from their actions nearly a year ago.

The 11 students each face one count of misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and one count of misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting, the Orange County district attorney's office said. If convicted, they could face anything from probation and community service to six months in jail.

The students were arrested Feb. 8, 2010, after shouting and protesting during Oren's speech on U.S.-Israeli security, forcing the diplomat to stop his remarks for 20 minutes. Eight of the students were from UC Irvine, and three were from the nearby campus of the University of California, Riverside.

Muslim students from the Irvine school protested outside the district attorney's office earlier this week after word leaked that a grand jury had been convened in the case.

Jacqueline Goodman, an attorney for all 11 defendants, said they would plead not guilty at an arraignment scheduled for March 11.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas defended his decision Friday, saying the protest was a pre-meditated attempt to quash the speaker and prevent the 500 to 700 people gathered there from hearing his remarks.

That made the incident about more than free speech, he said.

"This is a clear violation of the law, and failing to bring charges against this conduct would amount to failure to uphold the Constitution," he said in a statement. "We must decide whether we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy. We cannot tolerate a pre-planned violation of the law, even if the crime takes place on a school campus and even if the defendants are college students."

Goodman said that just because the district attorney can bring charges doesn't mean he should, particularly in this case where the students protested peacefully and didn't resist arrest.

"The district attorney enjoys wide discretion as to which crimes he's going to choose to prosecute. We don't prosecute every crime ever committed. We don't have the unlimited resources to do that," Goodman said. "It becomes very dangerous to a democracy when we allow the district attorney to prosecute a peaceful protest on a campus based on the contents of that speech."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said it is "deeply troubled" by the decision and called on the district attorney to dismiss the charges immediately.

"We are unaware of any case where a district attorney pressed criminal charges over this type of nonviolent student protest," the ACLU said in a statement. "The district attorney's action will undoubtedly intimidate students in Orange County and across the state, and discourage them from engaging in any controversial speech or protest for fear of criminal charges," the statement said.

Many of the defendants are top students applying to medical schools or pursuing master's degrees, said Hamza Siddiqui, a senior at Irvine majoring in political science.

"This is beyond ridiculous," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "They have a whole future waiting for them, and this little minor incident has a chance of ruining their future."

The incident was captured on video and enflamed tension between Muslim and Jewish students at the university, which has already run high for several years.

The university revoked the Muslim Student Union's charter for one year and placed it on probation for another year after launching its own investigation. In September, the school softened the sanctions by restoring the group's charter effective Dec. 31, but it added a year of probation and 100 hours of community service.

Cathy Lawhon, a university spokeswoman, has said the university has completed its disciplinary process and has no connection to the district attorney's investigation.