May 1, 2024 - News

University of Utah protests roil state's law-and-order culture

Illustration of a large picket sign next to a group of smaller picket signs.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Students rallied Tuesday in support of Palestine for the second consecutive day at the University of Utah, despite arrests Monday night.

Why it matters: The arrests have heightened an ongoing debate over the role of civil disobedience — and whether protests are more effective when participants show they're undeterred by punishment.

The intrigue: Organizers with the student group MEChA have added a demand that the U "stop the political repression of students and take the cops off campus now," according to Tuesday's Instagram post advertising the rally.

Zoom out: At several campuses in other states, demonstrations have been ongoing for weeks.

Driving the news: Amid Monday's rally, Gov. Spencer Cox took to X to enumerate various acts that "the First Amendment does not protect," including: "violence, threats to public safety, property damage, camping or disruptions to our learning institutions."

  • "We will protect protestors and arrest those who violate the law," he wrote.

Yes, but: From the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement, protesters have often violated the law deliberately.

  • When they "willingly accept the penalty," they show they buy into the rule of law — while demonstrating its potential misuse, Martin Luther King Jr. explained in 1965.

Case in point: Several replies to Cox questioned his example of "camping" as worthy of arrest.

  • "It is insane to me to list all these things and just casually put 'camping' in the middle," read one response.

Caveat: Whether the protest was "civil" is up for debate. Some protesters Monday were accused of throwing things at officers, and the university reported police confiscated a hatchet during the rally — though it's unclear whether it was used or brought there illegally.

  • One officer was injured, per the U's statement.

Friction point: In a statement Tuesday, the ACLU of Utah warned that shooing away protesters broadly stifles dissent.

  • "Protests on campus can be loud, disruptive, and offensive to others. A university's role is to help students navigate this situation, not to shut down protests," the statement read. Monday's police response "risked the safety and well-being of those directly involved, as well as those in the area."

What they're saying: "We will not continue with business as usual while there is a genocide happening! The University of Utah is complicit!" MEChA wrote Tuesday.

The other side: Utahns on social media are talking more about the protesters' tactics than about Palestinians — or the rally's push for the U to divest its endowment from Israeli companies and the U.S. defense industry.

Flashback: MEChA members were arrested in the weeks following campus protests in November.

Zoom in: Those rules, approved in December, require public colleges and universities to create policies that guarantee:

  • the school's neutrality on the position being voiced,
  • the right to free expression "at approved events or venues,"
  • participants' safety
  • diverse viewpoints on campus, and
  • a process to "condemn" or "prohibit" actions that violate the law or disrupt students' education.
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