October 24, 2019

“MURDER PATROL,” three women at the University of Arizona (UA) shouted repeatedly, interrupting a class and disrupting a student-hosted career-day presentation by two Border Patrol agents in March 2019. Following the university’s extensive internal investigation of this clearly illegal shoutdown, it’s up to UA to take appropriate action, discipline the students, and preserve free speech on campus, as required by Arizona law.

As police detail in an extensive report, the women “chanted and yelled obscenities and derogatory remarks” at the Border Patrol agents for 40 minutes, forcing one class to relocate outside so the professor could continue teaching. “My class had to evacuate our class because of these two,” a student wrote on social media. “We legit felt uncomfortable having class as this happened.” An unidentified person attempted to calm one of the protesters, prompting the protester to respond, “Do you want me to be aggressive with you, keep talking to me and I will get hostile.” As the police reported, “others took this as a threat that [the protester] would become violent.”

The illegal protest was so jarring that it made national headlines last spring and drew sharp condemnation from the president of the university. “The incident between the protesting students and the Criminal Justice club members was a dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech on this campus,” UA president Robert C. Robbins wrote following the disturbance. 

In an acknowledgment of the severity of the event, the Arizona Board of Regents Committee on Free Expression reported earlier this month that “students, faculty, and staff visibly and publicly expressed concerns” following the protest, and that UA is conducting a “confidential review” pursuant to board and university policies. That the university has taken the matter so seriously is welcome news, and we appreciate the need for a full investigation. We know this incident happened late in the school year, and that a vetting of the facts would take time. However, now that we know all the details of the incident, as evidenced in the police report, we look forward to seeing the University follow the law.

Like in other incidents occurring at universities across the country, these students weren’t respectful protesters—they targeted and shut down others’ freedom of speech. Arizona state law provides for sanctions against those who engage in behavior that crosses that line. While it is true that the students were arrested—with good reason—that is not the kind of discipline we are calling for here. It is incumbent upon the school to impose discipline according to the law, such as suspensions. If they don’t, students will be given carte blanche to use violence and shoutdowns to prevent speakers from getting their messages across—or even getting invited in the first place. In addition, we look forward to the University clarifying that illegal protests like these won’t be tolerated, underscoring to students that free speech will be protected.

“[P]art of the university experience is to be able to express diverse views, openly, without fear of retribution or intimidation—and to be exposed to other views and perspectives, even if they aren’t politically correct or popular,” said Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in signing that law. 

Passionate protests are a fundamental to free speech in America—they’re a healthy part of debating public policy. But what happened here wasn’t a protest. These students were determined to shut down speech, and they did. In doing so, they prevented other students from hearing the words of Border Patrol agents, while also substantially interfering with another class. It’s clear that the conduct in this case merits sanctions, as provided for by the law, to ensure that the freedom of speech for all is defended.

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