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FIRE statement on charges against University of Arizona students

For protesting the appearance of Border Patrol agents at a March 19 campus event, two University of Arizona students face misdemeanor charges of interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution, and one of the two is also charged with intimidation. Per UA President Robert C. Robbins, both university administrators and university law enforcement are continuing to investigate the incident. More criminal charges and alleged student conduct code violations may follow.

While FIRE continues to gather facts, guiding principles should be restated.

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.   

These facts present a close call between competing First Amendment interests. In such a situation, criminal prosecution is a heavy hammer. First Amendment jurisprudence recognizes that freedom of expression requires “breathing room”; filing criminal charges against students for campus speech that may be protected by the First Amendment will chill protected student speech. Students will rationally decide to self-censor rather than risk the possibility of criminal charges.

There is an important difference between conduct intended and designed to prevent others from expressive activity and protest which may incidentally impact or frustrate others’ expression. This may sometimes be a difficult line to draw, but close questions regarding student First Amendment rights are rarely best answered through criminal charges. Likewise, the University of Arizona — the policies of which earn FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating — must be mindful of its First Amendment obligations in reviewing the possibility of student conduct charges for potentially protected speech.

The government now bears the burden of demonstrating that the protest was unprotected conduct and that it meets the definition of the statute under which the students are charged. Criminal and conduct charges always warrant scrutiny, and scrutiny is justified here: Law enforcement officers are the target of the protests and there has been significant public pressure on the university to act.

FIRE will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Update (4:18 p.m.): This post has been updated to reflect the now-issued charges.

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