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FIRE to New Mexico State: Resist legislative pressure to block speakers

NMSU students and protesters speak during a protest against an anti-trans guest speaker on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, outside of the Corbett Center Student Union at New Mexico State University.

Meg Potter / Las Cruces Sun-News / USA Today Network

New Mexico State University students speak during a protest against guest speaker Matt Walsh on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

On Aug. 11, 2023, several New Mexico state lawmakers, councilors, and commissioners sent a letter to New Mexico State University. Their request? Infringe on students’ First Amendment right to invite speakers that may make other students uncomfortable or cause them “emotional and psychological damage.” 

So FIRE wrote NMSU on Sept. 6 to urge it to stand up to these calls for censorship.

Objections to conservative commentator Matt Walsh’s visit to NMSU last April gave rise to legislators’ calls to silence controversial speakers. FIRE has intervened numerous times on behalf of student groups trying to host Walsh or screen his documentary “What is a Woman?” after other students and even institutions have attempted to keep him and his views from campus. 

Matt Walsh speaking with attendees at the 2022 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Matt Walsh speaking at the 2022 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Arizona. (Gage Skidmore /

Dubbing himself as “Transphobe of the Year,” Walsh makes no bones about his beliefs. But as a public institution, NMSU is bound by the First Amendment. This means it can’t take the advice of state legislators in enacting policies that discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.

Higher education has long received protection as the place to hash out challenging or dissenting ideas and engage with new arguments. The Supreme Court proclaimed as much in 1967’s Keyishian v. Board of Regents, noting “[t]he Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’” 

Undergraduate students, the vast majority of whom are adults, are fully capable of choosing whether to engage with views with which they disagree and even find repulsive. Denying them the chance is not permissible for a public institution such as NMSU.

Along with being unconstitutional, it is impossible to craft policies that “shield” students from viewpoints they find offensive or harmful. No such policy could be crafted in a way that satisfies every member of the campus community. The same arguments made to NMSU for why it should restrict such speech could, in turn, be used to justify censorship of speech that the legislators and their supporters may like. 

As FIRE’s letter to NMSU reminded the university:

Importantly, the legislators here should know the very same expressive rights they seek to limit have been employed time and again to protect pro-LGBTQIA+ speech, which at one time was considered fringe expression, viewed as “shocking and offensive.”

Protecting speech means protecting all speech, even if some, many, or most disagree with it. The only way the First Amendment can continue to protect pro-LGBTQ+ voices, per the legislators’ demands, is if it also protects the views of those holding contrary views. With the institution’s duties under the First Amendment in mind, FIRE calls on NMSU to uphold freedom of speech on campus by rejecting policies that would discriminate based on the viewpoints expressed.

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 a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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