As a Tucsonan, Tucson community clergy member and a chaplain to students on campus, I have been dismayed and alarmed by the official response to the protest of University of Arizona students during a presentation by the Border Patrol.
President Robert Robbins’ response misrepresents the nature of free speech and the actions of the students. His tacit support of the misdemeanor charges against two students, and the UAPD’s further investigation in search of “additional criminal violations,” is support of official retaliation for constitutionally protected speech. As an American, I am horrified by this turn to the dystopian—are we expected to accept a First Amendment right to speech that ends where someone else’s preference begins? Or this distinction between “speech” and “disruption”? What is “disruption” but speech that the powerful do not care for? How can any student trust the university’s ostensible commitment to free speech when it has been made clear that displeasing speech will be punished?
I am further distressed as a Tucsonan. Since I moved to this city, I have been impressed by the values of welcome, diversity of culture, and not just toleration but celebration of difference that had seemed to be hallmarks of Tucson and the culture fostered at the University. But I think I must realize that this was a mistake on my part. Of course any class may invite whomever it wishes to present; but as university faculty and students have already observed, Customs and Border Protection officers present a material threat to the well-being of the student body, which includes DACA recipients, undocumented students and immigrants of all kinds. On the day of this presentation, a Tucson family was detained and separated. The Border Patrol’s presence, especially without announcement or warning, contributes to an environment of real danger, to say nothing of the fear that affects academic performance and prevents really belonging to the university community. Surely this is known to the administration, which organized a Diversity Task Force in response to student protests in spring of 2016. How, then, did this happen?
The charges threatened against the students are clearly intimidation, in violation of both their constitutional right to speech and their value in the eyes of God. Although Tucson’s position as a border city gives it the opportunity to be a “city on a hill,” where the biblical mandate to not only tolerate but fully welcome the immigrant, who “shall be to you as the citizen among you” (Leviticus 19:43) might be lived out, I fear that here, too, we are gripped by the fealty to soulless “law and order” that grows out of fear of the others. The only appropriate and pastoral course forward is to de-escalate this situation and cease promotion of this hostile environment for undocumented, immigrant and other marginalized members of our campus and broader Tucson community.
The University of Arizona must lead here: Dismiss all punitive measures currently before the students who protested the Border Patrol’s presence on campus, apologize for the infringement of their right to speech, and immediately initiate new conversations with the affected marginalized communities on campus to fully resolve this ongoing issue to their satisfaction. It is only by valuing each person and their experiences and truly coming to love the one we first consider a stranger as ourselves that we can be the vibrant community we are called to be.