LA may prosecute anti-Israel disruptors at UCLA

It began as yet another frustrating example of a university refusing to take action. After aggressive disruption at a Students Supporting Israel panel discussion at the University of California-Los Angeles on May 17, a top Los Angeles city attorney is now reviewing evidence and police complaints for possible prosecution under state laws that criminalize the disruption of public meetings.

Students Supporting Israel had gathered in a UCLA function room for a panel discussion titled “Indigenous Peoples Unite.” Disruptors stormed into the room mid-session. One person tore down the students’ flag, pulled away a desk placard, and cursed in the face of a panelist. With bullhorns, whistles, loud dancing, and slogan shouting, the event was shut down. The belligerent disruption and intimidation of the attendees was caught on video.

Although the UCLA administration publicly promised a referral to prosecutors, no such action was taken, because campus police were awaiting formal complaints by the intimidated students. Only after police reports were filed would police investigate and determine if a referral to prosecutors was called for. Then, prosecutors would weigh the evidence and decide if prosecution is warranted.

All students contacted by this reporter stated that they did not know they were entitled to make a police report.

After media revelations about UCLA’s inaction, two Jewish groups sprang into action — the Louis D. Brandeis Center, headed by constitutional attorney Alyza Lewin, and the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Center, headed by attorney Yael Lerman. The Washington-based Brandeis Center flew its attorney, Aviva Vogelstein, to LA. Together, Lerman and Vogelstein personally escorted numerous students as well as one member of the community to the UCLA police department where they filed formal complaints.

One such police complaint, obtained by this reporter, was filed by Laura Leve Cohen, a major donor to the UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, where she serves as an advisory board member, and a community member who attended the event.

Her complaint begins: “Have you ever been confronted by an angry mob and not able to leave? I hadn’t. Until Thursday evening, May 17th, 2018. … Midway through the presentation, an angry, out-of-control mob stormed into the classroom, shouting and chanting. Simply put, we were trapped by a crowd of student protestors, surrounded on all sides, and unable to leave the room.”

After processing the reports, the UCLA police department opened Case 18-1206, assigning it to Detective Selby Arsena, whose track record investigating campus violence includes a 2011 stabbing case that resulted in a 12-year prison sentence.

In mid-July, Arsena delivered his file to Los Angeles City prosecutors, who assigned it to the office’s assistant supervising attorney, Spencer Hart. One notable Hart prosecution involved jail time for a student found guilty false imprisonment at UCLA.

Both Arsena and Hart declined to comment for this article.

Just a few days after case 18-206 landed on Hart’s desk, he was emailed a seven-page letter, submitted jointly by the Brandeis Center and the StandWithUs legal center, a copy of which was obtained by this reporter. The joint letter was a polished and detailed review of the evidence, legal precedent, and case law.

“There is strong California precedent to prosecute and convict disruptors who violate criminal law in their attempt to silence speakers on campus,” the letter asserted. It continued, “In a similar fact pattern in 2011, a jury convicted ten student members of the Muslim Student Union of a misdemeanor for disrupting former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, in a coordinated effort at a public event at the University of California-Irvine (“UC Irvine”) … [later] upheld by a panel of three Orange County Superior Court judges. We believe that the facts in the case before you, Criminal Report #18-1206, merit similar prosecution and would result in similar convictions.”

The Brandeis-SWU letter specified the alleged potential criminal violations Brandeis and SWU had previously itemized in a letter to UCLA administrators: “§ 403 — disturbance of an assembly or meeting, § 415 — disturbing the peace; § 182 — criminal conspiracy to do the aforementioned’” and added two more based on additional research: “§ 242 — battery; § 664 — unsuccessful attempt to commit battery; and § 594 — vandalism.” The letter is jointly signed by Lewin, Vogelstein, and Lerman, who have become the most active in the effort to see the matter prosecuted.

Lewin commented, “This disruption was egregious and unlawful and must be properly prosecuted.”

While Lewin, Vogelstein, and Lerman have led the effort to have police reports filed and argued for prosecution, numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have voiced support. Just days after the disruption, the Zionist Organization of America’s legal department sent a letter to UCLA insisting that a violation of state criminal law was clear.

If prosecutions and convictions result from the May 17 UCLA event shutdown disruption, it is expected to help define the criminal limits of such disruptions at campuses across the nation.

Edwin Black is the author of New York Times bestseller Financing the Flames.