Some UNM student groups and administrators found themselves divided Thursday over the line between free speech and hate speech.
Members of seven different student organizations met with administrators Thursday to discuss controversial Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking appearance at UNM scheduled for next Friday.
KIVA Club, MEChA, Black Student Union, Queer Student Alliance, Muslim Student Association, DREAM Team, The Red Nation, and Showing Up for Racial Justice all signed a statement of concern which argued that Yiannopoulos’s appearance would incite physical violence on the UNM campus.
The meeting was held at the request of the student groups.
Acting University President Chaouki Abdallah was present for the first half of the meeting. Also present at the meeting was Office of Equal Opportunity Director Francie Cordova; Jozie De Leon from the Office of Equity and Inclusion; and Dean of Students Nasha Torrez. Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle was also present to gain more insight into the student perspective.
The students were concerned that Yiannopoulos’ appearance will increase the number of violent incidents on campus and the amount of hate speech they experience after he leaves.
“You guys as faculty and staff are allowing a man who spews out hate speech to come to a campus that already has a problem,” said Nakia Russ, a UNM junior who attended the meeting.
Another student, Matthrew Hill said he isn’t worried about when Yiannopoulos arrives, but rather what happens after he leaves.
“Are we gonna be protected as the minorities on this campus when he leaves?” Hill asked. “After Donald Trump was elected there were a bunch of instances of people coming out using the n-word which we are still trying to get banned to this day.”
Students referred to the swastika that was spray painted on campus after Trump’s election and shared their personal experiences of being called derogatory and racist terms in their time at UNM. They were also concerned about their physical safety on the day of the event if they choose to protest.
“We’re asking you to protect us because we’re outnumbered here,” Danielle Moore said.
Administrators encouraged students to ignore Yiannopoulos and argued that he only benefits from the publicity created by protests at his events or event shutdowns, adding that they have a lot of security prepared for the event.
But that plea only ended in more concern and frustration from students.
“I just came from a class and I’m the only black person there, so how can you tell me to ignore it? I guarantee you that out of the 25 other people that’s in the class, one of them doesn’t like me. Why? Because the color of my skin,” Hill said.
Other students suggested that potential hateful acts or rhetoric on campus can be prevented if the event is cancelled.
Administrators pointed out that UNM has planned programs focused on diversity for this semester in consideration of a challenging year.
There is also a panel scheduled for Wednesday to educate students on the legal parameters of freedom of speech. The panel will include an American Civil Liberties Union representative, as well as an attorney on free speech and media law, Torrez said.
“We wanted to do it before Milo comes to campus and before the inauguration. We wanted to give you this toolkit now,” Torrez said. “It’s just a little difficult to organize the panel that quickly.”
Administrators made it clear that it would not be appropriate for UNM to cancel the speaking engagement as it follows all UNM policies, and Yiannopoulos’ messages fall under freedom of speech.
“Imagine that this University was not allowing people like you to speak your mind, because there is this other group that’s going to be saying I’m threatened by this. Our position is not that we support him,” Abdallah said. “Frankly, if I were not the president of the University today or the provost or anything, I would be demonstrating against him. But on the other hand, if I were to take a position that this speech is bad, if I were to draw the line, it gets to be a very slippery slope.”
Students voiced concerns that the administration does nothing about violence or hateful speech toward students of color. Administrators insisted that when incidents are reported to them they take action.
Virginia Scharff said the issue of the UNM seal — an issue that Kiva Club and the Red Nation have been organizing around for over a year — will soon be resolved. The Univerisity has requested that a group be organized to look at the cost of replacing the seal, as well as potential new designs, she said.
“That’s got a rocket underneath it by now. The president came to me and said, ‘I want this by March,’” Scharff said.
The University is also looking at the murals in Zimmerman — which have been questioned by some over the years for its imagery — and some of the other concerns about the images around campus, officials said.
But for now, Yiannopoulos’ visit is on as scheduled.
Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.