Free Speech For Whom?

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Full disclosure: I really don’t want to write this post. As someone who has spent most of his adult life on college campuses in some form (as an undergrad, grad student, and now faculty member), I find the “free speech on campus” debate to be absolutely tiresome. It is a fake controversy mostly manufactured by conservatives as a means of simultaneously attacking education (which they hate) and playing the persecuted victim (which they love). It is fanned by self-flagellating and idiotic liberal pundits like Jonathan Chait and Conor Friedersdorf and it is all kept alive by an insular national media culture filled with wealthy white mediocrities who all went to the same small number of private universities specifically designed for wealthy white mediocrities.

But this fake controversy has suddenly gotten very real here in Arizona. And Arizona’s universities are showing what they really value by criminally charging students who are protesting against racism and oppression while simultaneously allowing students to be told that they deserve to be raped in the interest of “free speech.”

Criminal Speech

In March, a group of University of Arizona students protested outside of a presentation by Customs and Border Patrol agents to the school’s criminal justice club. The protesters argued that the presence of uniformed and armed CBP agents made the campus unwelcoming for the school’s immigrant, undocumented, and DACA students, especially with recent reports of people dying in CBP custody and CBP agents purposely destroying water jugs placed in the desert for migrants by humanitarian groups.

It seems like at first the protest wasn’t a big deal. The video the protestors shot shows them chanting outside, no doubt annoying and drawing the attention of those watching the presentation, but not preventing it from happening. But then the protestors’ video got picked up by the right-wing blogosphere and the group Judicial Watch wrote a letter to university president Robert Robbins. Next thing you know, two students, Denisse Moreno Melcher and Mariel Alexandra Bustamante, were charged with misdemeanors for “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution.” A third student, 27-year-old graduate student Marianna Ariel Coles-Curtis, was charged this past Friday.

This law, ARS 13-2911 defines interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution as:

  1. Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly interfering with or disrupting the normal operations of an educational institution by either:

(a) Threatening to cause physical injury to any employee or student of an educational institution or any person on the property of an educational institution.

(b) Threatening to cause damage to any educational institution, the property of any educational institution or the property of any employee or student of an educational institution.

  1. Intentionally or knowingly entering or remaining on the property of any educational institution for the purpose of interfering with the lawful use of the property or in any manner as to deny or interfere with the lawful use of the property by others.
  2. Intentionally or knowingly refusing to obey a lawful order given pursuant to subsection C of this section.

“You Deserve Rape”

We can argue about whether Melcher, Bustamante and Coles-Curtis’ behavior met these descriptions, but let’s set them aside for a minute and consider another scenario. Let’s say someone regularly comes to the campus of UA or ASU and stands in front of buildings, which students have to enter for class, and shouts vile and violent things at them, including holding signs that say “You Deserve Rape” and saying that all Muslim students are terrorists. Students who are forced to encounter him often come to class in tears or so angry that that faculty have to counsel them against a violent response. Oh, and let’s throw in the fact that this person has at least once physically attacked a student.

If we allow that the UA students’ protest was an interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution, certainly this behavior would be as well. However, the notorious “Brother Dean” Saxton, the most famous of a rotating group of street preachers who regularly appear at the ASU and UA campuses, has as far as I can tell never been charged with this offense, despite all the behavior listed above. Though he was charged with assault for the 2016 attack on a female student, his only punishment for that was a one-year ban from the UA campus, though he continued to appear at ASU during the ban and resumed his antics at UA as soon as the ban ended.

The effect his hateful rhetoric has had on students and its interference with their class work is something I can speak to personally. For a few semesters now, I have taught classes in a building near one of Brother Dean’s favorite spots on campus and had to take time from class to counsel students who are visibly upset by him and unable to focus on their work.

As I typically teach freshmen, I often see students right after their first encounter with Brother Dean. While some upperclassmen who are used to his antics will mock Saxton on SnapChat or dance behind him with a Pride flag, the freshmen who are not used to him are often the most upset by him. They often come to class asking me why he is allowed to get away with such vile behavior, especially the actual threats of physical violence like the “You Deserve Rape” sign.

Not having a better answer for them, I usually mumble something about “free speech” and “we’re a public university,” but I’ve always known that was at least a little bullshit. But now we have evidence it is major bullshit. If any of the Arizona universities choose to, they can invoke the law to arrest someone who is interfering with their students’ ability to get their education in a safe environment. But they choose not to when it’s a so-called “preacher” spewing right-wing rhetoric but are quick to do so when it’s young Latinas who have angered the editors of Breitbart.

As I said at the beginning, the entire conversation around “free speech on campus” is a way for conservative bigots and assholes to act persecuted and to undermine respect for education. Their views are so loathsome, from telling women they deserve to be raped to destroying water jugs for migrants in the desert, that they can’t be argued on their merits. So instead they accuse anyone who disagrees of censorship and use the levers of the right-wing outrage machine and the law to prevent others from speaking.

6 COMMENTS

  1. If ASU’s Crow permits this type of injustice to happen on campus, I will have my child transfer out and take my $20k per year somewhere else.

  2. Signs like “you deserve rape” and “all Muslims are terrorists” are hate speech. We don’t need anymore of that nonsense.

  3. Thanks, David, for pointing out the gross inconsistency of UA administration behavior regarding “offensive” speech. UA may be hearing the same point made in a courtroom soon if the administration does not mend its ways.

  4. Oh sweet breath of fresh air. How long have I been asking just this question? Thanks for writing exactly the article that needed to be written about this incident and many others. President Robbins deserves to hear from all of us, alumni, students, and anyone else who thinks a University should hew to a high standard in how students are treated. Back when I went to UA, the University Police appeared to operate with much less regulation than the Tucson Police Dept. I don’t actually know if that is true or not, but back then they regularly filmed demonstrations and activists trying to make antiwar and anti intervention statements. In this most recent case of harassing political protest from only one direction, they were completely wrong. If you too would like to let Dr. Robbins know that his support for their actions is completely misplaced, he can be contacted through https://president.arizona.edu/contact-us.

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