Arizona Case Shows the Difference Between Campus Free Speech and Harassment
Three Arizona students may soon learn a valuable
lesson: There’s a difference between exercising your free speech on campus and blocking
someone else’s attempt to do the same.
In March, three University of Arizona students shouted
down a group of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, and then chased
them to their cars, hurling insults and other invectives along the
While the entire incident is not available on video, a
police report and available recordings suggest the students
disrupted an event inside a campus facility, harassing both students and the
The students have become known as the “Arizona Three.” They face charges for Interference with the Peaceful Conduct of an Educational Institution, among other citations.
Arizona has some of the nation’s best provisions for protecting
free speech on public college campuses, and universities can hold hearings when
students violate someone else’s expressive activity and consider “a range of
Yet criminal activity must be referred to the proper
authorities, and schools have the responsibility to maintain order inside
classrooms and other campus facilities. The university police were within their
professional capacity to refer these students to local authorities.
The Arizona Republic reports, “The protesters face misdemeanors [sic] charges, not because they spoke out, but because they muzzled the speech of other people.” The students and those now defending the Arizona Three’s behavior want to “choke off other people’s speech … without consequences,” writes a Republic editor.
Stanley Kurtz is correct when he writes that this incident could be an important test case for Arizona’s campus speech laws.
“If the university
holds fast and the disruptors pay a price for silencing others, the move will
carry national implications,” Kurtz says. He explains that such consequences should
dissuade future disruptors and “prevent speech-suppression from happening in
the first place.”
He’s right. In Wisconsin, where public university officials adopted campus speech protections similar to those in Arizona, protesters at the University of Wisconsin said they chose not to shout down an invited speaker in 2017 because the university’s new free speech rules include possible suspension or expulsion for disrupting an event.
More states should
adopt these proposals. So many speakers have been shouted down on campus without
any consequences, and calls are growing for more aggressive action against
entire institutions that allow this behavior to go on.
President Donald Trump’s executive order in March highlighted the campus speech issue and said federal agencies should make sure that universities receiving federal taxpayer money for research “promote free inquiry.”
The National Association of Scholars recently released a statement that echoes the executive order. They want federal officials to include free speech protections in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a measure currently under consideration.
Their statement says Washington should withhold federal funding from public colleges and universities that have restrictive speech codes, which include bias response teams and so-called safe spaces.
Like the executive order, they give a nod to the fear that these new provisions in the Higher Education Act could result in an expansion of Department of Education authority through additional oversight and regulations. They say enforcement of these provisions should “comply with all existing law.”
Unless post-secondary institutions want Washington to be more involved in their operations, public university systems should embrace—and even call for—campus speech legislation such as the proposals adopted in Arizona and Wisconsin. As circumspect as the executive order and National Association of Scholars’ statement may be, the potential for federal overreach lingers nearby.
Last weekend, the Pima County attorney dropped
all charges against the Arizona Three, but the university said it would
continue its own investigation, according to the Arizona Republic.
The university should stand firm, resist demands to
exonerate the Arizona Three, and set an example of how to protect free speech
on campus for everyone. The students already had the right to protest the
Customs agents, but based on the evidence available, chose to disrupt instead.
The university should make an example of these
students so as to protect the rights of all individuals lawfully present on a
public college campus.