Irvine 11 supporters tape their mouths closed during a press conference Friday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / March 11, 2011)

SANTA ANA — The arraignment for 11 student activists accused of disrupting a speech at UC Irvine by the Israeli ambassador to the United States was delayed Friday until April 15.

But the debate over who is fighting for free speech — Orange County prosecutors or the "Irvine 11" — continued immediately after the proceedings at a news conference and accompanying demonstration of support.

Attorneys for the eight UCI and three UC Riverside students denounced the misdemeanor charges of

conspiracy to commit a crime and disrupting a meeting.

Some 100 supporters, many with tape over their mouths to symbolize what they called an assault on free speech, also gathered at the Central Justice Center here.

Defense attorney Dan Stormer called the allegations an "absolute affront to the Constitution."

Prosecutors claim they're protecting speakers from being drowned out by organized disruptors.

"The case is a clear violation of law, both in writing and on video," said Susan Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney. "We had no choice but to file."

She pointed out that more than a dozen students and activists who staged a sit-in outside UCI Chancellor Michael Drake's office only weeks after the Oren protest were also criminally charged.

The Irvine 11 are accused of planning to and then disrupting the Feb. 8, 2010, speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. The students were disciplined by their respective campuses and UCI's Muslim Student Union was temporarily suspended.

"We did worse things when I was there," quipped Daniel Mayfield, a defense attorney for some of the activists and a UCI alumnus. "The district attorney's office for the last year has been illegally using the media to try this case."

In the 362 days that followed the protest, prosecutors did not disclose that they had convened a grand jury to investigate the incident, nor would they comment on potential charges until they were filed Feb. 4, just before the statute of limitations expired.

"The district attorney is targeting its weakest and most vulnerable constituents," said defense attorney Reem Salahi. "They're criminalizing dissent … these students are outstanding human beings who are truly invested in their community."

Mayfield said he filed a motion to have the Orange County district attorney's office recused from the case and wants the state attorney general to take over.

He claims prosecutors have tried the case in the media, and that e-mails exchanged between office employees and prosecutors show an inherent bias against the students and that some of the evidence was obtained by the grand jury through illegal means.

One e-mail exchanged between a prosecutor and assistant refers to the case as the "UCI Muslim case."

Prosecutors said they were referring to the Muslim Student Union, not to the defendants' presumed religion.

The defendants' side has also been well represented in the press as well. Irvine 11 supporters have held numerous protests and rallies first decrying the MSU suspension, then the grand jury investigation, and finally the misdemeanor charges.

If convicted,

the defendants could be sentenced to six months in jail or probation.