Controversial speakers have come and gone from the University of New Mexico, but this March, something near the Student Union Building may have left some passersby perplexed.
Throughout the year, a black and white sign hangs from a red bar on UNM’s camps, reading: “Free speech zone ahead. Topics discussed may be uncomfortable and controversial. The topics and opinions discussed are those of private individuals and not the University of New Mexico.”
That sign appeared again in March in the area just before entering Cornell Mall, near the “Modern Art” piece by Betty Sabo.
Last month, advocates from Good News Day, In Christ is Life and George Edward Smock Jr., better know as “Brother Jed,” registered with the Student Activities Center in an effort to spread their ideas.
Organizations must register with the University online in advance to avoid double booking a space, said Ryan Lindquist, the director of the Student Activities Center.
While registration for speakers is free, security costs can get expensive — especially for popular speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos — costing UNM at least
Lindquist said the “free speech zone...encompasses the majority of all outdoor common spaces,” but the signs are used as a warning for students.
“Those signs were put there basically as a trigger warning for people who may be uncomfortable with the content that is being discussed...so that those signs give people an opportunity to avoid or find a detour...to get around those spaces if they don’t want to engage in that type of event. We look to protect our students and the right to free speech,” Lindquist said.
The signs have been around for “several years,” but they were brought out after “more people on campus” expressed displeasure of guest speakers on campus, he said.
“We decided to use these signs as an opportunity for education, to let people know that the University of New Mexico is a place that takes free speech very seriously and wants to honor our commitment to providing a free speech forum,” he said, adding that the University must uphold this right as a state and federal institution.
“We, as state and federal institutions, have to honor that right. Otherwise we jeopardize our status for federal funding and open up ourselves to lawsuits from individuals who have been denied that right to free speech,” Lindquist said, adding that UNM does not book these events.
Sitting under the large art piece in Cornell Mall, Christopher Gallegos, a freshman studying biochemistry, listened to Sebastian Bryan from In Christ Is Life debate with University students.
Gallegos said the concept of free speech zones “makes sense” and even though free speech is permitted through the campus, keeping speakers in a particular area is okay for UNM.
Bryan did not respond to requests by the Daily Lobo for an interview in time for the publication of this article.
Anthony Jackson is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TonyAnjackson.