When protesters substantially disrupted a student-organized speech by conservative commentator Tomi Lahren last week, the University of New Mexico correctly tried to preserve students’ right to free expression while also keeping safety in mind.
On Sept. 16, Lahren spoke at UNM at the invitation of the campus Turning Point USA chapter. However, during Lahren’s speech, protesters reportedly tried to force their way into the room, banged on doors and walls, and pulled the fire alarm to disrupt the speech. To their credit, administrators and police barricaded the door to keep protesters from disrupting the speech, and Lahren left with police after she finished her speech — though the question and answer session was cut short.
Ideally, university police and administrators would have prevented substantial disruption without squelching legitimate protests, and the event would have concluded as initially scheduled. However, when it became clear that this wouldn’t happen because some protesters resorted to physical force, UNM reportedly called the New Mexico State Police, Albuquerque Police Department, and an emergency response team to help, along with the university police who were already there.
The next day, UNM released a statement, which read in part:
The University of New Mexico is committed to the principles of free speech and values its role as a public square for debate, a marketplace of ideas, and a place to test and challenge competing viewpoints and opinions. In this context, allowing speakers invited by a student organization on campus in no way implies an endorsement of the content of their speeches or their opinions. And those who disagree with the ideas expressed are encouraged to respectfully voice their perspectives.
The safety of our campus community and visitors is our first priority. We are deeply disappointed in the actions of those individuals who intentionally chose to disrupt a scheduled speaker and infringed upon the rights of the speaker and those who attended the event to listen and engage, vandalized University property and unlawfully pulled a fire alarm. UNM is investigating these incidents and will hold anyone who violated the law or University policies accountable.
This is the correct way to handle disruption to expressive events. UNM took clear steps to ensure the event would occur, and has said that those who disrupted it by going beyond spirited protest will be investigated and held accountable.
UNM must make sure to limit any sanctions it may impose to those who disrupted the event, and not punish non-disruptive and non-violent protesters who remained outside expressing their own First Amendment rights.
When institutions allow protesters to shut down events, they acquiesce to the “heckler’s veto.” A heckler’s veto occurs when protestors substantially disrupt an event through violence or other means to prevent a speaker from speaking. Courts have made clear that when events are targeted for disruption by those opposed to the speakers or their messages, educational institutions must respond not by removing the speaker, but rather by making “bona fide efforts” to protect expressive rights “by other, less restrictive means.” These efforts must take place before authorities “suppress legitimate First Amendment conduct.”
UNM took action — calling in more security, barricading the door, and ensuring Lahren finished her speech — before escorting Lahren out for safety reasons. The institution also made clear that it will not tolerate students who infringe on others’ expressive rights regardless of any legitimate complaints regarding the speaker or host organization.
In keeping with the First Amendment, UNM must make sure to limit any sanctions it may impose to those who disrupted the event, and not punish non-disruptive and non-violent protesters who remained outside expressing their own First Amendment rights. So long as it does so, UNM’s actions here should serve as a model to other institutions that will face the substantial disruption of events in the future.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).