In February 2018, Tala Deloria and several other young people at the University of California–Los Angeles protested against Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s very wealthy, more-or-less-openly corrupt Treasury secretary, who was due to speak on campus about the US economy.
Deloria, 24, and her fellow activists hadn’t planned on going inside the auditorium—they wanted to protest Mnuchin outside the event space with other activists. But there were seats available, and at the last minute, Deloria and a few others from the local chapter of Refuse Fascism (part of the Revolutionary Communist Party) decided to go in.
She sat in her seat quietly at first, but she couldn’t take hearing Mnuchin talk anymore without being challenged. So Deloria began yelling at Mnuchin about the Trump administration’s cutting of social programs and detaining of immigrants. UCLA’s police force quickly moved in, picked Deloria up under her arms and legs, and dragged her away. Several others began shouting in her stead. They were arrested too, and brought to a holding room for several hours. UCLA banned the protesters from campus for seven days.
Deloria was surprised by the arrest, but thought it was all over after she was released—until six months later, when Los Angeles prosecutors filed a host of charges against her and her fellow protesters, including trespassing, resisting arrest, and disturbing the peace. “I’m pretty furious,” Deloria said recently in an interview. “Not only because of what happened to me, but because this is part of bludgeoning the right to protest and the right to speak out.”
Last week, a Los Angeles jury found all defendants not guilty. But the fact that UCLA arrested the demonstrators and cooperated with prosecutors who pressed charges against them for peacefully disrupting an event may foretell a grim future for campus politics. There’s no official tally, but this appears to be one of the first instances in which protesters on a college campus were charged for nonviolent, nonthreatening behavior that involved no property destruction or violence but only a simple heated exchange of words. “I’m angry because the university is at the helm of this,” Deloria said. “It’s gonna affect me, but it’s also gonna put a chill on speech across the US.”
Jerry Kang, UCLA’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion, said that by arresting the protesters, the university was following its lengthy speech and protest policy document, which guarantees a right to speak and protest, but draws the line at disrupting a speaker.
“We want serious critique and conversation, but we want persuasion and not coercion,” Kang said in a recent interview. “We make very clear that we understand and celebrate protest, we understand the need for people to state their case, it’s just when the protest becomes so disruptive that it’s essentially an act of force that silences the speaker from reaching a willing audience, that we can’t permit that to happen.”
Kang said that the school was not involved in recommending that charges be filed, but that he “trusts the system” that has the court decide what the appropriate punishment should be. “There has to be accountability for your actions,” he went on. “Civil disobedience has a very rich and important tradition in our country. It helps break down laws that are truly unjust, and I want to recognize that we should celebrate civil disobedience, but civil disobedience has always had consequences.”
Refuse Fascism members and their supporters, however, point out that UCLA did not simply remove the protesters from the Mnuchin event. It arrested them, cooperated with prosecutors, and granted Mnuchin’s request to suppress video of the event. The university also delayed the release of documents related to the event, and only after a year of cajoling from free speech groups and a lawsuit from the free speech advocacy group FIRE did UCLA acquiesce to the public records request.
“They’re saying, ‘Look, folks, this is actually a case of free speech, because the free speech rights of Steve Mnuchin were violated,’” Deloria said. “They’re weaponizing the First Amendment in order to suppress speech.”
Dan Kapelovitz, a lawyer for several of the UCLA protesters, said that the charges filed were extraordinarily rare. “Usually, in actual disturbing-the-peace cases, like an annoying neighbor playing loud music, they don’t file charges,” he said. “I think the police have it out for this group.” Kapelovitz added that the police used excessive force in their arrest, refused to stop interrogating the protesters when they asked for a lawyer, and did not read them their Miranda rights.
Though the charges against the protesters were ultimately fruitless, UCLA’s tough stance against the demonstrators is part of a worrying trend on college campuses: In the name of free speech, colleges and universities, and the governments that fund them, have instituted anti-protest laws that call for the arrest and even expulsion of protesters if they disrupt a speaker.
Over the past three years, the conservative Goldwater Institute has been working to pass variations of model legislation that would prevent schools from disinviting speakers, require the establishment of disciplinary policies for disruptions, and require universities to pay court and legal fees for anyone who is disrupted on campus. The Goldwater Institute has close ties to ALEC, the think tank notorious for pushing through dozens of business-friendly, far-right bills at the local, state, and federal level.
At least 17 states have now passed legislation modeled on the Goldwater Institute bill. And perhaps more troubling is the fact that many colleges and universities are either remaining silent on the new policies or actively instituting them without being asked to by their state governments.
In Wisconsin, for example, where the bill stalled in the state Senate, the University of Wisconsin board of regents nonetheless approved its own Goldwateresque policies that mandate that students who disrupt speakers twice be suspended and those who disrupt three times be expelled. The US House and Senate have also introduced similar bills, which would apply to all public universities and colleges.
“The model legislation—it’s a disingenuous use of the term ‘free speech,’” Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel at the American Association of University Professors, said. “There’s a very distinct, very conservative agenda.” The problem with the laws, Lieberwitz explained, is that they skew the determination of whose right to express themselves matters: “The mission of the university is a public mission, and part of that mission is to protect free speech and the right of students and faculty to engage in vigorous and heated debate. That might be very loud, and some might view it as disruptive, but just because of that, doesn’t mean the student should be silenced.”
In other words, the laws protect mostly conservative speakers invited to campus without considering the rights of those who protest the speakers.
The laws amount to a conservative-backed bait-and-switch—using the universalist language of the First Amendment to push a one-sided agenda, and limit backlash to that agenda. It’s becoming a tried-and-true tactic for the far right. In March, President Trump signed an executive order called “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities” that encouraged his administration to cut off funding for any institute of higher learning that doesn’t create a safe space for campus speakers. Only a few months later, the administration ordered the University of North Carolina and Duke University to change the content of their courses on Middle East studies to include more “positive” teachings on Judaism and Christianity, or else risk losing funding from the federal government.
Over the past several years, the nonprofit UnKoch My Campus has collected thousands of pages of documents that show the true intent of these laws and policies prohibiting dissent: they are not meant to increase free speech, but are instead part of a larger strategy to turn higher education into a conservative thought and policy factory. The Koch family now funds programs, professorships, and student groups at over 300 colleges and universities, and many of the “free speech” organizations, that push for restrictive protest policies.
It remains to be seen how many colleges and universities go along with this conservative agenda. So far, there has been little resistance from administrations over the laws. Given that fact, and also that ostensibly liberal institutions like UCLA have begun to punish student protesters, it’s likely that restrictive speech codes that lead to disciplinary actions, expulsions, and arrests will become more common across the United States.
“The whole free speech movement is tied to billionaires’ efforts to teach theories that favor their conservative views and their economic model,” Jasmine Banks, the executive director of UnKoch My Campus, said. “They want to make sure that there’s no dissent to their ideas.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to show that prosecutors, not UCLA, pressed charges against the students, and that the FIRE lawsuit was over various public records but not the video of the event itself.