By Tori Richards
SANTA ANA, Calif (Reuters) - Ten Muslim college students from Southern California were convicted on Friday of unlawfully disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the United States last year.
The verdict followed two full days of deliberations by a six-man, six-woman jury in the so-called "Irvine 11" case, which touched off a furor over free speech rights at the University of California at Irvine.
Spectators began wailing in the packed courtroom in Santa Ana, California when the verdicts were read by a court clerk, and about 50 people left the courtroom visibly upset.
The defendants, who are all in their early twenties, were convicted of one count each of conspiracy and disturbing an assembly and could face jail terms of up to a year, probation or community service at sentencing.
Charges have been tentatively dismissed against the 11th defendant.
"We're going to continue fighting this. We're going to appeal this decision," supporter Marya Bangee, 25, told Reuters outside the court.
"These men to us represent our struggle for civil rights in this country and for them to be found guilty and sentenced for speaking their minds is devastating for us all," Bangee said.
The case stems from a protest organized by the Muslim Student Union at the university of a February 8, 2010 speech there by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Prosecutors say the students interrupted his appearance by yelling such insults as, "It's a shame this university has sponsored a mass murderer like yourself."
The Orange County District Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case, has said the students -- rather than exercising their own free-speech rights -- were interfering with the right of Oren to be heard.
But the charges against the students drew an outcry from civil liberties advocates and Southern California's Muslim community, who say the students were unfairly singled out for prosecution even though similar protests are common at universities and do not result in prosecution.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at UC Irvine, has also criticized the criminal charges as heavy-handed.
The Muslim Student Union was suspended by the university for an academic quarter and put on probation for two years.
(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)