Student's preaching sparks First Amendment debate on UA campus
Update:The First Amendment Q&A session will be on Wednesday, May 1 from 3-4 p.m. in the SUMC Santa Rita Room
A student holding a sign that read “you deserve rape” last week has spurred a campuswide debate on the First Amendment.
Dean Saxton — also known as Brother Dean Samuel — was preaching Tuesday near the UA Mall when he declared that he believed women should dress more modestly to avoid sexual assault. He held up signs, including ones that read “frat boys are rapists” and “rapists deserve the death penalty.”
UA administrators are still reviewing several complaints filed with the Dean of Students Office about Saxton. They are also reviewing videos taken that day of several incidents between Saxton and passersby.
Ryan Revock /Arizona Daily Wildcat Dean Saxton, a classics and religious studies junior, preaches on rape at Heritage Hill on Tuesday, April 23. Saxton's preaching has led to a conversation across campus about the First Amendment.
However, officials say the First Amendment protects Saxton as long as he did not directly threaten another student. It “forbids the university from regulating or punishing speech or the expression of ideas or messages because they are offensive or controversial,” according to the Office of the General Counsel’s website.
If the administration finds Saxton, a junior studying classics and religious studies, crossed the line, the UA will move forward with a code of conduct investigation, said Kendal Washington White, interim dean of students.
“We’re doing our jobs and sometimes people don’t like the decisions that we make, but we’re upholding university policy and the law,” Washington White said. “As much as we don’t like it, it’s protected speech.”
Although there is a widespread perception that hate speech is constitutionally unprotected, there is no recognized exception in the law for hate speech, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
Where the line could be crossed is if Saxton targeted a specific person. However, if all he did was direct the message at a general audience, it is most likely constitutionally protected, LoMonte said.
Additionally, the argument that the sign “incites lawless action” would be a difficult one to prove, he added.
“Whether we agree with the message or not, he probably had a right to say it as long as he said it in a nondisruptive manner,” LoMonte said. “It’s a horrible message, but I think it would be hard to make the argument that a rapist is going to say that he wasn’t otherwise inclined to commit a rape until he saw that sign.”
Some students are urging the UA to do more to discipline Saxton. A petition started by Samantha Sharman, a gender and women’s studies junior, has collected more than 2,000 signatures.
Sharman said she is assembling a packet to take to the Dean of Students Office, which includes sections of the student code of conduct that she believes Saxton has violated.
“The fact that our campus is inadvertently and implicitly tolerating this kind of behavior is really upsetting to the student body and to our community at large,” Sharman said. “While I understand the perspective of needing to protect student’s free speech, and I absolutely support that, their response to the issue was really unacceptable.”
Depending on the administration’s response to the petition and to student complaints, there are also plans for a rally in front of the Dean of Students Office, Sharman said.
“I think the bureaucratic response has been what’s angered us even more than Dean’s actual outburst,” Sharman said. “I’m not sure where the line is for the Dean of Students office between free speech and verbal assault, but I feel very clearly that Dean has crossed that line.”
However, the code of conduct does not supersede the First Amendment, LoMonte said.
“If the code of conduct is inconsistent or more restrictive than the First Amendment, then the First Amendment always wins,” he said.
Some students said they agree that Saxton’s right to free speech has to be upheld.
“I think he’s protected by the First Amendment, so far he hasn’t gone against it at all,” said Josh Solomon, a computer science sophomore who regularly sits on Heritage Hill during Saxton’s preaching. “As offensive as it is, I still think he’s protected.”
Instead of pushing for punitive action against him, community members should use their right to free speech to counteract Saxton’s ideas, Solomon said. Some groups on campus have already begun planning counter-demonstrations.
Members of the Women’s Interests Collaborative have coordinated a “You Deserve” event on Tuesday. The purpose of the event is to “show that UA is a community of love, inclusion, and support.”
“It gives everyone who’s been hurt by this trauma an opportunity to have an outlet for their expression of the what UA community means to them,” said Krista Millay, program director of the Women’s Resource Center. “We hate that this outlier made national news when he is not representative of us as a community.”
Saxton said he supports free speech on campus, for himself and for other students planning to demonstrate against him.
“People will kill you for what you say and that’s the great thing about freedom of speech,” Saxton said. “No other nation has the amount of free speech we have in America. Anybody else can speak … I’m not going to complain to the Dean of Students Office about that.”
The UA also plans to hold a question and answer session to address concerns raised by students, faculty and staff regarding Mall speakers and free-speech issues on campus.
“I’d like to see the entire campus community, including students, faculty and staff learn more about the First Amendment,” Washington White said. “It’s really surprising how people interpret the First Amendment.”
Editor’s note: For more coverage, see the guest column submitted by Kendal Washington White, the UA’s interim dean of students, on the First Amendment and controversial issues on campus.