A major test case for campus free speech

Stanley Kurtz alerts us to a story that, he says, “will mark a major turning point in the campus free-speech crisis, whether for good or ill.” The case comes from the University of Arizona where students disrupted a Career Day presentation by Border Patrol agents.

Normally in these cases, the students doing the disrupting get off with no punishment or, at most, a light slap on the wrist. But that’s not how it’s gone down so far at the University of Arizona.

Instead, the UA campus police filed criminal misdemeanor charges of “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution” against three disruptors, and the leader of the shout-down was also charged with “threats and intimidation.”

Moreover, UA President Robert Robbins backed up the campus police. “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech,” said Robbins, “but disruption is not.”

Robbins’ stance should be understood in the context of the new legal landscape in Arizona. A year ago, as I reported here, the state enacted a campus free speech law that includes robust protections against shout-downs. That law is based on a model published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute and co-written by Stanley Kurtz.

Unlike more limited laws passed in some states, the Arizona bill includes provisions for the discipline of those who engage in shout-downs. It also establishes an oversight system to ensure that administrators actually enforce the law’s provisions.

I agree with Stanley that President Robbins must have had the new state law in mind when he refused to withdraw the charges filed by campus police.

The criminal case against the disrupting students will proceed in court, not at the University level. The judge probably will not come down all that hard on the students.

But that should not end the matter. As noted, under the new Arizona law the students’ shout-down triggers a disciplinary process by the college and, indeed, UA has initiated an administrative investigation of this sorry incident.

But leftist students and approximately 100 professors are demanding that (1) all charges against the disruptors, whether criminal or within the university, be dropped; (2) agents of ICE and the Border Patrol be permanently banned from campus; and (3) if the first two demands are not met, President Robbins resign.

In short, the leftists are demanding that UA abridge free speech and violate state law, which explicitly declares the university “open to any speaker whom a student, student group, or faculty member has invited.” (In this case, the Border Patrol Agents were invited by the school’s Criminal Justice Association).

Truly, then, we have a test case. As Stanley says:

If the University of Arizona follows through and the disruptors face real consequences, we might someday reach the point where shout-downs will stop and discipline will seldom, if ever, be required. The point is not to punish but to prevent speech-suppression from happening in the first place. A few well-handled instances of discipline in the near term could be enough to establish deterrence and render punishments at UA unnecessary down the road. That would send out a signal nationally.

On the other hand, should the [leftist protesters] carry the day, it would effectively green-light further shout-downs. And it would show for now that even in the face of a law to the contrary, campus administrators have been completely cowed by the anti-free speech left.

Fortunately, as noted, Arizona’s new law provides for recourse in the event of such a drastic capitulation. Stanley reminds us that if President Robbins surrenders, and the disruptors face no consequences either in court or within the university, then it is the obligation of the oversight report to condemn this. It is also the obligation of the legislature to respond by cutting back funding for the university.

And let’s not forget President Trump’s new executive order on campus free speech, which puts federal research funding in play when campuses act with hostility to free inquiry. As Stanley warns, “UA might want to contemplate the new EO as it works through this conflict [since] the price of surrender to campus shout-downs may soon be about to rise.”

In sum, the showdown at UA represents an important potential turning point in the campus free-speech crisis. That seems clear. What’s unclear is how it will end.

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