OPINION: Charges against student protesters are an affront to free speech

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Dani Cropper | The Daily Wildcat Old Main is the original building from the University of Arizona.

Two students being charged with misdemeanors for protesting Border Patrol is a perfectly absurd encapsulation of the hypocrisy at the heart of the debate on campus free speech. 

For years now, conservative commentators and outlets have insisted that college campuses are hostile toward any and all conservative thought. This protest was red meat for those outlets, as both Breitbart and The Daily Caller posted the video, labeling the protest as "harassment." Campus Reform described the student as going "absolutely berserk." The rabbit hole of conservative victimhood on campus is deep and depressing – in its depths are the now-disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Breitbart’s cocaine-fueled notions on "Cultural Marxism." If any of these outlets actually believed in free speech – and, of course, if President Dr. Robert Robbins actually believed in it – these charges would be an affront. 

But instead, things are moving apace; UAPD is planning on filing a Class 1 misdemeanor that could result in up to six months (!!) of jail time, and the Dean of Students says the protesters were actually the ones who violated the first amendment. Most recently, Judicial Watch, a conservative activist group who once claimed ISIS had a base in Mexico, is calling on the university to “stop protecting” the students and has accused the ASUA of supporting criminal conduct. 

That is the level of hysteria created by a student shouting “murder patrol” at border patrol agents while they’re in a classroom. It would be funny, if the stakes weren’t so high. 

          RELATED: Dean of Students says protester violated 1st Amendment rights

The exact charge being filed is “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution,” and the language of the law is vague enough to be used arbitrarily. To be clear, the border patrol agents were not speaking or teaching to a classroom but rather to the Criminal Justice Association, a student club. The club has a right to invite whatever speakers they like, but to insist on complete protection from any protest is naive. Imagine another scenario: The Communist Club is hosting a meeting, and some College Republicans show up in protest. Each organization is within its rights: to hold a meeting on the one hand, to protest a meeting on the other. I would argue it is incumbent on the club to be aware of how the speakers are perceived on campus, to understand the backlash and then, if necessary, choose a different location. 

How could the club not have anticipated this? Are they really unaware of the criticisms directed at the Border Patrol? What’s been overshadowed by the viral video and ensuing media spectacle is the substance of what the student said. “How about you talk about slashing water? How about you talk about taking the shoes off migrants, letting them walk through the desert barefoot? How about you talk about all the graves of unidentified folks?” Well, how about it? These are well-documented and accurate descriptions of the actions of Border Patrol agents. For an association to retreat into the protective arms of the police due to these clear-headed and direct questions shows how little they are willing to be critical of their field or listen to the concerns of the campus community. 

And in the language of Robbins: “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.” I wonder: How can one protest without being disruptive? Perhaps, in the future, we can have "free speech zones," where all protest is quarantined so as not to allow for any disruptions. Or perhaps, let’s say tuition goes up 25 per cent next year, and students go out to the Mall in protest. I suppose that would be a disruption; I suppose that would require legal action as well. Robbins’ take on free speech is, in fact, incredibly narrow and repressive. Protestors in Tucson have shut down streets and stopped traffic without arrests being made or charges being filed. So if this is the precedent being set -- that protest can never be disruptive -- then protest can, in effect, be made illegal. 

          RELATED: UA student confronts Border Patrol agents, video goes viral

I guess seeing a young woman of color tell Border Patrol agents to their face the institution for which they work has, in fact, murdered people, makes us uncomfortable. I guess it is uncouth to shout in a classroom. The pages of this very Wildcat said as much: this frankly mild protest was “a transplant of the demagoguery that we see all too often on other institutions across the United States,” according to Wildcat opinions writer Matthew Aguilar. 

But the facts are obvious: the university is working in concert with the police and a rabid right-wing media machine to criminalize two young women of color for exercising their First Amendment right to protest. Can there be a clearer case of power crushing dissent? Whose First Amendment rights are being violated, exactly? 

This is a clear threat to the constitutional rights of students, and the absence of its defense and the defense of these protesters is troubling. But don’t worry, when some conservative white man wants to talk about white genocide on campus, I’m sure all the free speech defenders will come out in full force. 


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