On Tuesday, June 7, 2016 members of the Los Angeles, Orange County, and UCI Law student chapters of National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman in response to widely circulating allegations regarding a May 18 student protest on the UCI campus. Students representing several student groups held an action the evening of May 18th outside of a screening of a pro-Israeli Defense Force film. Soon after the action, allegations that the student protesters were violent and endangered the lives of the students watching the film prompted Chancellor Gillman to promptly release a statement that the student protesters "crossed the line of civility." The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at UCI is now facing campus disciplinary proceedings for the action.
Members of the student Guild chapter at UCI Law served as legal observers for the May 18 protest. The following letter to Chancellor Gillman is based on their observations.
June 7, 2016
Chancellor Howard Gillman
Office of the Chancellor
510 Aldrich Hall
Irvine, CA 92697-1900
Dear Chancellor Gillman,
We are writing on behalf of the National Lawyer’s Guild. Our NLG law student affiliates volunteer to observe demonstrations because we believe in safeguarding and advancing the constitutional rights of demonstrators engaged in political expression. The primary role of a Legal Observer is to watch and record the activities of law enforcement when interacting with demonstrators and ensure that the demonstrator’s rights to express political opinions and occupy public spaces are not being infringed upon. Legal Observers also provide objective documentation to lawyers representing arrestees to be used in civil and criminal procedures.
On May 16, 2016, chapter members were informed that several combined UCI student groups were in need of Legal Observers for a series of actions in protest of certain events that would be taking place at Israel Week. Members of the UCI Law student Guild agreed to be Legal Observers for an action on the evening of May 18, 2016, and fulfilled their duties of accompanying the students, communicating with campus law enforcement on behalf of the students, and documenting the events as they happened.
While relations between campus law enforcement and the student demonstrators on May 18th were cooperative, and no students were arrested during the demonstration, we feel the need to speak about what we observed in light of recent threats of discipline, which seem to be based on inaccurate reports following the event.
Several outside groups have alleged in the aftermath that protesters threatened students, blocked exists and otherwise engaged in threatening and dangerous behavior. These accusations were and remain unsubstantiated and in fact are demonstrably false. We believe that false depictions of that night contributed to the letter you sent out to the UCI community, which declared that the students "reportedly disrupted the event, blocking exit paths,” and that the event participants “feared for their safety, calling on our police force for assistance."
As documented in the attached statement of facts based on our extensive notes, Lt. Frisbee and UCIPD arrived ten minutes after the students began the demonstration. By that time, the student demonstrators had been told that they were not allowed to enter the event (arguably a violation of UCI policy), and had turned away from the door to the event and focused their demonstration on the street and sidewalk outside of the building. To reiterate, the doors to the event were clear of students within ten minutes of the initial approach. The observers worked cooperatively with law enforcement and the students throughout the protest to make sure that everyone present understood when they might be crossing any line that might put them outside UCI policy or the law more broadly. When the police explained that a certain action would be considered a violation of the law and lead to arrest, the students listened and altered their actions accordingly.
No anti-Semitic language was used by any of the students, according to our observers. No students chanted “death to all white people” or anything similarly malicious toward fellow students. Indeed, the most "uncivil" language was used not by members of the protest, but by counter-protesters who screamed, "thank God" and "they deserved it,” while a protester read aloud the number of Palestinians civilians killed by Israeli forces. Our observers witnessed no students approaching event participants as they left. When UCI police informed the observers that the attendees had left, the students walked back to the Cross-Cultural Center as a group. The observers did not encounter any event attendees as the protesters returned to the Cross-Cultural Center, and all students remained peaceful. The observers followed the students back to the Cross-Cultural Center to ensure their safety and complete our obligation to document the entire event.
As members of the legal community unaffiliated with the groups that were engaged in the action, we are shocked by the treatment these students are receiving after what appeared to be a vigorous but normal campus protest. Without any investigation or substantiation of extreme allegations made by partisan forces, you wrote to the UCI community to condemn the actions of this group of students. In doing so, you sent a message that students may be publicly condemned and disciplined without proper investigation. Moreover, your statement, which has been quoted in nearly every media report of the incident, was taken by reporters and UCI community members as proof that the students indeed “crossed the line of civility” in the eyes of the administration.
We believe your public comments constitute a threat to the students' due process rights and serve to sanction hostility against pro-Palestine and Black Lives Matter students, who are routinely subject to unprecedented levels of harassment and intimidation across the country, including on UC campuses.
We therefore call on you to retract your remarks to the campus community and to remind the campus that all students regardless of race, religion, or political beliefs, may exercise the right to protest and enjoy the right to a fair investigation when accused of serious infractions such as physical and verbal threats against others. We call on you to ensure that the students who now stand accused in the court of public opinion receive the fullest protections and due process by the UCI administration, and that neither you nor the UCI Administration more broadly repeats accusations in the future without having taken the time to substantiate them fully.
We look forward to your response.
Ameena Mirza Qazi, Esq,
National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles
Brooke Weitzman, Esq.
National Lawyers Guild Orange County
Observer, UCI Law NLG Chapter
Observer, UCI Law NLG Chapter