Law enforcement at the University of Arizona said they plan to charge two students for protesting Border Patrol agents’ presence on campus last month. In a statement announcing the charges, the university’s president accused the students of infringing on “free speech” rights.
The March 20 incident was tailor-made for right-wing outrage. A viral video shows a University of Arizona student standing outside a classroom and criticizing two Border Patrol agents who had come to give a presentation to the school’s Criminal Justice club. A young woman calls the officers “an extension of the KKK” and cites the agency’s destruction of water bottles left for migrants in the desert. Conservative outlets and a border patrol union blasted the students involved for apparently censoring the agents.
Their hand-wringing about students going “berserk” and “harassing” Border Patrol are part of a larger right-wing narrative about the supposed death of free speech at the hands of leftist students. But the student activists, not the federal agents the students shouted down, are the ones facing punishment for their speech. The university’s police force plans to charge two unidentified students with “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution,” for which they face up to six months behind bars.
The University of Arizona did not return a request for comment. In a March 29 email to students, university president Robert Robbins described what he characterized as “a dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech on this campus.”
Video shows one student criticizing Border Patrol agents through an open door of a classroom where the agents were speaking to the Criminal Justice club. She does not appear to enter the classroom, and two members of the club appear to call the police on her.
“This is supposed to be a safe space for students, but they allow an extension of the KKK into campus,” the student protester says on video. “How about you talk about slashing water? How about you talk about taking the shoes off migrants, letting them walk through the desert barefoot?”
She goes on to call the officers members of “Murder Patrol.” In a second video clip, multiple students shout “Murder Patrol” at the officers return to their car. Multiple children have recently died in Border Patrol custody.
Robbins’ March 29 email announced the upcoming charges against two students involved in the protest.
“At the core of these inquiries is the University of Arizona’s commitment to free speech,” Robbins wrote. “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.”
FIRE, an organization focusing on First Amendment issues on campus, said information on the incident is still limited, but that the school might argue that the students were attempting to prevent the Border Patrol agents from speaking, in a manner that is not protected by the First Amendment.
Still, "in such a situation, criminal prosecution is a heavy hammer," FIRE said in a statement. "First Amendment jurisprudence recognizes that freedom of expression requires 'breathing room;' filing criminal charges against students for campus speech that may be protected by the First Amendment will chill protected student speech. Students will rationally decide to self-censor rather than risk the possibility of criminal charges."
His remarks follow a storm of criticism by right-wing media and law enforcement. The conservative group Judicial Watch filed a complaint with the university, calling on it “stop protecting student who harassed, stalked BP agents on campus.”
National Border Patrol Council Vice President Art Del Cueto gave a radio interview questioning the student’s credentials at the school, asking whether she was a paying student “or if she’s there on some kind of grant,” the Washington Post reported. “I’m amazed that this individual was allowed to do this.”
A Tucson, Arizona Border Patrol agents union said the student’s protest of Border Patrol agents on campus was an attack on “Caucasian students.”
“Here is the ridiculous and generic response by UofA President Robbins,” NBCPC Local 2544 wrote on Facebook. “It appears that Caucasian students can be attacked racially and Border Patrol agent’s can be harassed on their campus, without any consequences. SHAMEFUL!!”
FIRE said the statement was a call for an unjust crackdown.
"The call by a Border Patrol agent (with considerable political influence) to investigate and punish students for a letter criticizing the Border Patrol is a clear demand that the university violate the First Amendment," the organization said.
Who’s Censoring Who?
Campus politics are a favorite talking point on the right. A 2018 poll by the Gallup Organization found that conservatives claimed to be censored at a greater rate than liberals in colleges. Although those sentiments are subjective and difficult to quantify, actual incidents of political firings skew against the left. A 2015-2017 study of academic firings found significantly more liberal professors who were fired for their speech than conservative professors. Although that figure might reflect a greater percentage of liberal professors in academia, the rate of liberal firings increased after 2016, while conservative firings remained unchanged.
Conservatives have also complained of student opposition to right-wing speakers on campus. But a Georgetown University study found that most of those incidents were in response to a small set of far-right provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos trying to schedule event after event at colleges that opposed their racist politics.
Data aside, the right’s emphasis on campus politics is so great that in March, President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to protect what he termed “free speech” at schools.
But Trump’s executive order obscured the legal cases at the heart of what he termed a “free speech” debate on campuses. Far-right speakers like white nationalist Richard Spencer have attempted to rally supporters at public universities, arguing that those schools have an obligation to host them. Spencer and a set of supporters regularly sued universities that refused to play host to his fascist speeches. Those speeches, where he was able to host them, were usually sparsely attended. But they served a secondary purpose. Members of the far right often use speeches as excuses to punch people who show up to protest the speaker.
Spencer’s March 2018 speech at Michigan State University was a case study in the tactic. The school initially refused to host him but caved under a lawsuit. At the school, Spencer was accompanied by members of the neo-Nazi group Traditionalist Worker Party, who brawled with counter-protesters. Leaked chat logs reveal the TWP built Molotov cocktails in advance of the speech and joked about throwing them at protesters. At another Spencer speech in 2017, his supporters shouted “Heil Hitler” at protesters, with one Spencer fan firing a gun at them. Meanwhile, a couple who support far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos are currently on trial for shooting a protester in the stomach at one of Yiannopoulos’ speeches at the University of Washington in 2017. The day before the speech, one of the pair messaged a friend to announce that “I'm going to the milo event and if the snowflakes get out off hand I'm going to wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.”
University of Arizona students said Border Patrol agents’ presence on campus also posed an imminent risk. On Monday, a coalition of student recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy released a letter condemning the agents’ presence.
“As DACA recipients at the university, the presence of CBP on campus has a traumatic impact on our overall well being and impedes us from fully engaging with our academics,” the students wrote. “In a space where all students are given the right to pursue an education, their presence was and will always be an infringement on that right.”
The school’s student government also released a statement in support of the student protesters.
“The same day USBP agents were present on campus, a Tucson family was arrested and detained by USBP only mere miles from the UA,” the student leaders wrote. “The concerns students have of USBP presence on campus are real, they are valid, and they need to be heard.”