University of Utah employees sign letter for MECHA students charged for protesting

More than 70 staff and faculty members are calling on the University of Utah’s administration to “cease their pattern of intimidation” after nine students were criminally charged for protesting an event on campus.
The employees — which include professors, associate professors, assistant professors and others from at least 15 departments — signed onto a letter shared Monday in support of the students who are mostly members of the student group MECHA.
“MECHA’s recent protests should be viewed as a valuable opportunity for education and dialogue rather than punitive measures,” reads the staff and faculty message addressed to U. President Taylor Randall and top university leaders.
The letter comes shortly after the U. students were charged earlier this month following a sit-in — organized by MECHA — of an event critical of the transgender community put on by a conservative club. Campus police say they had to cancel the Nov. 1 event and escort out members of Young Americans for Freedom after MECHA members stormed the room shouting “trans people are welcome here.”
They say MECHA infringed on the free speech rights of the conservative club, and student groups are not allowed to shout others down, even if they find the speech hateful.
Originally, seven students faced counts, including both Class B misdemeanors and infractions, for disrupting the operation of a school, disorderly conduct and interference with a police officer. The U. has since identified two more students who have been charged.
The U. said in an updated statement that six of the students are members of MECHA. The Salt Lake Tribune is not naming the students at this time, in part because of the level of charges.
The faculty and staff letter demands that the U. drop the charges — which were filed by citation by the school’s police force — but the school cannot do so at this point, according to a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City prosecutor’s office.
The counts are currently being reviewed by the prosecutor’s office, which can decide after the students are arraigned next month if the charges will move forward or be dismissed. The students’ first court appearances are scheduled to start on Jan. 8.
One of the students charged spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday and said MECHA members appreciated the letter from faculty and staff.
“It means a lot to know that we’re not alone in this,” she said. “Our professors, the people who educate us, do care about us.”
Since the letter was first posted Monday, she estimates another 70 or 80 faculty and staff have signed on — but the added names have not yet been verified. She said the effort has largely been led by employees of color. MECHA, similarly, is made up mostly of Black and brown students, and it is part of a national organization that originally grew out of the Civil Rights Movement; it has a student petition, as well, with more than 300 signatures.
The MECHA chapter at the U., the employees say, has taken part “in invaluable work over decades to support access and retention efforts for underrepresented students at the university” and has an “important place within our institution.”
The professors, academic advisors and other staff call for “supporting and not criminalizing students.”

Professors speak out in support

The U. first drew attention with MECHA on Nov. 9 when administrators sent a letter to the club, pulling its official university sponsorship and funding. That also included canceling MECHA’s annual high school conference, held to encourage students from marginalized backgrounds to apply for college.
The letter signed by faculty and staff this week said: “At a time when the university is seeking federal designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, de-sponsoring one of the leading organizations that supports Latine students at institutions of higher education will have a harmful and contradictory effect on these efforts.”
Additionally, the employees question the timing of pulling the club’s sponsorship.
The U.’s decision came on the same day that MECHA held a large rally in support of Palestinians in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The U. has said it was not punishing MECHA for that, but rather for the group forcibly shutting down the Young Americans for Freedom event earlier in the month.
But the letter from staff and faculty members says it doesn’t appear to be so limited.
“In their communications with MECHA regarding de-sponsorship, university staff also told students that their stance against the genocide in Gaza was not aligned with the university, implying that their protest in support of Palestinian human rights played a role in the decision to withdraw sponsorship,” the letter reads.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A protester waves a Palestinian flag during a sit-in as the group MECHA occupies the Union ballroom during a protest on the University of Utah campus on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.
Paul White, an associate professor of social psychology who signed the letter, said he wants to know why the decision was made to send the letter to MECHA on the day of their Palestine rally, just hours after the students marched across campus. He said it could just be a coincidence, but it also “seems to have played a role.” (White noted that his comments are his own and not representative of the U.)
Teneille Brown, a professor of law at the U. who signed the letter, is asking the U. to share more details on its decision with MECHA to more clearly show that it wasn’t related to the Palestine rally.
“I think it would go a long way to reassuring our community that this is not viewpoint discrimination and that unpopular perspectives (apparently being against genocide is unpopular in 2023) are welcome here,” she said in an email.
She’s concerned by efforts to clamp down on MECHA’s speech. And the university’s actions against the club, she said, have led to students, faculty and staff feeling afraid to speak up.
“This is a sad state of affairs anywhere, but especially in an intellectual environment like a college campus,” Brown said, noting that her comments are also her personal views.
College campuses across the country are seeing students increasingly protest and tensions rising over the Israel-Hamas war. Some have banned student groups for siding with Palestine.

Another letter from the U.

The U. sent out a letter to faculty on Monday, which a spokesperson said was coincidental and unrelated to the letter from employees on MECHA.
The campus communication addressed the recent action from the Utah System of Higher Education which earlier this month passed new requirements and restrictions on free speech on public college campuses. With those, students are specifically not allowed to shout over another group and block others from exercising their right to speech — regardless of the topic. And university administrations are supposed to remain neutral on all political issues.
“As we navigate the complexities of upholding the rights of individuals to share their thoughts and opinions on campus — including messages that some might consider objectional or hateful — while maintaining a community that is safe for all, we recognize that there are questions and concerns about this ongoing process,” the message to staff and faculty reads.
The school then addressed MECHA specifically, pointing to the Nov. 1 disruption of the Young Americans for Freedom event, which was the screening of a documentary about transgender individuals who transitioned and later returned to their gender assigned at birth.
Steve Downes, a professor of philosophy who signed the MECHA letter, said he feels the students had every right to protest that event, which he was also upset by because it promoted anti-transgender views.
“I signed the letter because I agreed with one of its central claims, which is that the university seems to be holding a view of free speech that privileges the speech of one group over another,” he said, suggesting that the U. is protecting Young Americans for Freedom over MECHA.
Danielle Olden, an associate professor of history, similarly said she is concerned that the university claims to support transgender students but then allowed “such blatant, anti-trans propaganda” with the Young Americans for Freedom event.
“If we are forced to choose between protecting the right of trans students to exist and thrive and the right of the YAF to show a hate film (in the name of free speech), I choose our trans students,” Olden said, saying she speaks for herself, not the school.
Downes worries, though, that the faculty and staff letter won’t have an impact. He said the situation reminds him of when the administration at the U. sent out a memo in 2020 saying it would not tolerate racism on campus after a racist text sent by Morgan Scalley, a football coach, sent in 2013 resurfaced. Downes pointed to Scalley later being reinstated — with some penalties.
The professor said: “Here we support free speech sometimes and for some people, and we do not tolerate most (or perhaps only some) racist behavior.”
The U. said in its letter Monday that the Center for Equity and Student Belonging “has invited the group to participate in a rescheduled high school conference that will take place in February, and administrators remain willing to work with the group and reevaluate its status in the future.”
The faculty and staff letter said MECHA should lead the high school conference, not just participate in it.

Worries about the upcoming legislative session

The clash with student groups at the U. has reverberated across both the university and the state.
At the same time faculty and staff feel that MECHA is being targeted, students with Young Americans for Freedom have hired an attorney and sent a letter to the U. saying they also feel they are being treated unfairly.
The YAF letter was sent last week, claiming the U. threatened to change the club’s status because it hung too many posters on one bulletin board for its event. The U. changed the rules at the end of November to limit club flyers to one per board.
But YAF says the school tried to apply those requirements retroactively to its group when it held its rescheduled event on the transgender community before the rules took effect.
“Spiteful university administrators immediately jumped on the opportunity to punish YAF,” the group wrote in a news release.
All of the letters from YAF, the U. and the school’s faculty come weeks before the Utah legislative session starts on Jan. 16.
It is expected that there will be several bills restricting the work and reach of diversity offices on public college campuses here; those were targeted toward the end of last year’s session, but the bill was pulled at the last minute.
Gov. Spencer Cox said earlier this month that he feels those offices have become divisive and to expect changes. “You’re going to be hearing more from me about this over the coming months as we work with higher education especially to make sure that we get those programs right, because I don’t feel like they’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Downes said that’s “really worrying and disturbing,” particularly in light of how MECHA was treated. He is anxious to see what direction that takes.
The letter from faculty and staff said the U. should do more to embrace its diversity and give students a place to express their views, particularly around Palestine and LGBTQ issues. And it encouraged the school to buoy students groups like MECHA instead of trying to shut them down.


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