Two students at the University of Arizona will face criminal charges for protesting a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) event on campus last month. The university president has argued that the protest was “a dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech.”
In an email to ThinkProgress, UA vice president of communications Chris W. Sigurdson said the two students are scheduled to appear in the Pima County Justice Court on April 22, 2019. “The UAPD is continuing its investigation into the incident,” he said.
According to the Arizona Republic, video of the protest went viral after several conservative outlets and social media users shared it as an example of liberal attempts to stifle free speech.
In a statement on Friday, UA president Robert Robbins said the students will be charged with “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution,” a misdemeanor which could result to up to six months in jail.
Video of the protest shows students outside of a classroom during the CBP’s presentation to the university’s Criminal Justice Association. One student can be heard calling the agents “Murder Patrol,” “murderers,” and “an extension of the KKK.”
“This is supposed to be a safe space for students,” the student said in the video. “There are students that pay to be here … that need this to be a safe space for them and we have the KKK and their supporters right here at the U of A.”
A second clip shows that as the agents leave the classroom, several students begin chanting “Murder Patrol,” with some following the agents until they were off campus.
Shortly after the incident, the university’s student government association released a letter in support of the protesters, saying that the presence of the uniformed agents, “especially without warning, was, is, and will always be immensely harmful to our DACA and undocumented community.”
Despite the student government association’s support, Robbins said in the statement that “The UA Police Department will continue to investigate the incident for additional criminal violations.”
UA police told the Arizona Republic that charges have not yet been filed against the students.
Robbins added that the “University has policies and protocols for behavior and expression, and we are following those … I have assigned university staff to examine our processes to ensure we are working effectively to help prevent similar incidents in the future while maintaining the 1st Amendment right to free speech and protest.”
Robbins goes on to prioritize the free speech rights of the students participating in the Criminal Justice Association.
“The student club and the CBP officers invited by the students should have been able to hold their meeting without disruption. Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”
This distinction between student protest and disruption is dangerous, said Acadia University professor of judicial politics and authoritarianism Jeffrey A. Sachs.
“That’s all there is to it. That’s where we are now,” Sachs said on Twitter Monday. “You can speak but not disrupt, and believe me: disruption will include so much more than you think it should.”
UA’s stance on what constitutes a violation of free speech seems to be in line with that of President Donald Trump, who last week signed an executive order in support of free speech. While the order doesn’t establish new rules or guidelines, some experts believe it can be used by the administration to apply pressure to universities, “possibly in politically selective ways,” wrote Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law, in the Washington Post.
Trump’s announcement of the order at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), as well as his signing ceremony when he was surrounded by conservative activists, makes it clear that “this administration’s focus is on the free-speech rights of only some citizens — namely, conservatives,” Corbin wrote.
A recent Gallup/Knight Foundation study found that the crisis of conservative free speech on campus is largely overblown. So too are incidents of universities disinviting or banning certain offensive speakers from delivering speeches on campus. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), there were only five cases in 2018 in which speakers were disinvited because of their views.
Still, conservative activists routinely portray liberal attempts to stifle free speech as a serious threat. This claim is misleading or based on incomplete data, Sachs argues in a 2018 blog post for the Niskanen Center.
For instance, Sachs writes, while the FIRE database shows that the left is responsible for a majority of “disinvitation incidents” on campuses, the database fails to include some similar incidents instigated by the right at religious colleges and universities. Examples include a 2015 case in which a Seventh Day Adventist institution canceled a humanist speaker’s appearance, a 2017 case in which a former Baylor Law School professor was disinvited from Baylor University for criticizing the school’s handling of a sexual assault report, and a 2015 case in which Liberty University canceled an appearance by an alumnus for his views against Hobby Lobby.
“But even so, we should expect there to be more disinvitation attempts coming from the campus left than from the right. After all, that’s where more of the students are,” Sachs wrote.
Meanwhile, UA students who are DACA recipients are standing strong against the university’s actions. On Monday, they released a letter in support of the protest, adding that “the presence of CBP on campus has a traumatic impact on our overall well being and impedes us from fully engaging with our academics.”
“Just these last two weeks, we are aware of at least 10 Border Patrol interactions with immigrants in Tucson,” the letter states. “One of them occurred on Tuesday March 19th when Customs and Border Patrol detained three members of an immigrant family, including a 12 year old daughter. After this detention, the father was deported. While this family was being separated, Customs and Border Patrol was on the University of Arizona campus recruiting students.”
This story has been updated with comment by the University of Arizona communications office.