As a public institution, the University of Arizona is fully bound by the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects the right of public college students to engage in peaceful protest. This right protects student speech that listeners may find deeply offensive. Taken alone, the content of the speech at issue here — calling Border Patrol agents “murder patrol” and “an extension of the KKK,” for example — is plainly protected by the First Amendment. Likewise, 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 First Amendment also protects the right of public college students to hear from the speakers of their choice free from the heckler’s veto. Attempts to prevent a speaker from being seen and heard by an audience are not protected by the First Amendment. However, as FIRE has previously stated, isolated heckling, fleeting disruption, or other expressive activity that does not prevent audience members from seeing and hearing the speaker is generally permissible.
There is simply not enough information in the brief videos that have so far been made public to confirm that the protestors’ conduct, taken as a whole, constituted unprotected disruption. Video recordings capturing some of the incident appear to place the protesting students near the doorway but outside of the room, show the students refusing to leave, and indicate that the students and Border Patrol agents inside of the room noticed the demonstration. Although the student hosts of the event call law enforcement (saying that they did so because one demonstrator said the presence of the Border Patrol agents made her fear for her safety), there is no indication that the event was unable to proceed. When the Border Patrol officers leave, they are followed down a short hallway and into a garage by student protesters.
Two students from the University of Arizona are facing misdemeanor charges for harassing two U.S. Border Patrol agents who came to speak at their school.
Last month, The Daily Wire reported that two Border Patrol agents were harassed when they came to speak about their careers to criminal justice majors at the university.
Several videos showed students interrupting the officers’ presentation and following them out of the classroom to their cars while chanting “murder patrol.”
“This is supposed to be a safe space for students but they allow an extension of the KKK into campus, an extension of the KKK into campus,” a student said, interrupting and filming the agents. “There are students that pay to be here, pay to be here, that need this to be a safe space for them and we have the KKK and their supporters right here at the U of A.”
Two of the students, whose identities remain unknown, are being charged with “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution,” according to an email from the university’s president obtained by Campus Reform.
In an email to the entire student body, President Robert C. Robbins started by reaffirming “the University of Arizona’s relationship with the leadership and the women and men serving in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”
“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,” Robbins wrote. “University police determined today they will be charging two of the students with interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution, a misdemeanor.”
Robbins said that the university’s police department will continue investigating possible additional criminal violations and that the Dean of Students is still “reviewing potential violations of the student code of conduct.” He further added that “there will be a probe into actions involving [university] employees.”
Robbins added that the university is committed to free speech but said the student’s actions were not protected. “The student club and the [Customs and Border Protection] officers invited by the students should have been able to hold their meeting without disruption,” Robbins wrote. “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”
“As a community of scholars, we need to be more thoughtful and deliberative in how we approach these issues and work together to sustain vigorous conversations to find better solutions,” Robbins concluded.
Campus Reform reported that, following the incident, the university’s student government condemned the agents’ presence, deeming it “immensely harmful to our DACA and undocumented community.”