- Dozens of faculty and staff members at the University of Utah have signed onto a petition demanding that the administration stop its “pattern of intimidation” after university police brought charges against students protesting a campus event.
- The petition follows campus police charging nine students — including six members of MEChA de U of U, a socialist student group — with misdemeanors after they protested a November film screening hosted by a conservative student group, according to a university notice.
- The petition also takes issue with the administration’s recent desponsoring of MEChA — a decision it informed the group’s members of the same day they conducted a separate protest to show solidarity with Palestinians. The student group’s “recent protests should be viewed as a valuable opportunity for education and dialogue rather than punitive measures,” states the petition.
The charges stem from a Nov. 1 event hosted by Young Americans for Freedom to show a documentary critical of the transgender community. MEChA protested the event, chanting that “trans people are welcome here,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier this month.
The decision to charge the students was not related to their perspectives on the event, according to the university’s notice.
“The protest at Marriott Library on Nov. 1 complied with the law up to the point that the protesting students shouted down the scheduled event, refused to leave, touched officers, locked arms and dangerously blocked their movements to the exits of the conference room,” Keith Squires, the university’s chief safety officer, said in a December statement. “At that point, the protest became a public safety risk for all.”
On Nov. 9, MEChA also hosted a walkout in support of Palestinians. Members demanded the University of Utah divest from Israeli companies and cut ties with the nation’s government.
That same day, the university’s Center for Equity and Student Belonging notified MEChA that it was pulling its sponsorship of the student group. In a letter explaining the decision, the university said MEChA was “engaging in behaviors that infringe on the First Amendment rights of other University of Utah students to express their views.”
The loss of sponsorship means the group is also losing funding.
The letter stressed that the university supported the group’s right to speak out on important issues and shared their concerns about marginalized groups being hurt.
“However, the law does not permit one side of a dispute to disrupt and prevent another from peacefully speaking their mind,” it stated. Just as MEChA "may have its voice heard, those with opposing views also have the right to speak and to have their voices heard even if you disagree with their offensive views.”
A November announcement explaining the decision echoed that argument, saying the university can’t allow student organizations to shut down and interrupt other groups’ registered events.
The faculty-staff petition contends that the university’s leadership has not told the student group which of its actions specifically triggered the desponsorship.
“In official communications to the campus community, university leadership has implied (though never explicitly stated) that it desponsored MEChA as part of its legal obligations to protect the free speech rights of those who organized the screening of the transphobic film,” the petition states. “Still, MEChA was desponsored only hours following the Palestine solidarity protest.”
The signatories further argue the university informed Mecha that its stance toward the Israel-Hamas war did not align with the university’s own views. This suggests that the protest in support of Palestinians played a role in the decision to pull sponsorship, the petition contends.
The petition is addressed to University of Utah President Taylor Randall and other members of the administration.
As of Tuesday, over 70 university employees have signed it, MEChA said. University of Utah had over 22,000 employees in 2019, according to institutional data.
A University of Utah spokesperson pointed to a Monday email sent to faculty outlining the institution’s free speech responsibilities. It cited a recent resolution passed by the Utah Board of Higher Education that calls for public colleges to stay neutral and cultivate academic freedom.
MEChA remains a registered student group, according to the letter notifying members of the loss of sponsorship. And the Monday email to faculty said the university leadership was willing to “work with the group and reevaluate its status in the future.”