Main Navigation

Unrest on campus: This is what we do

Years into an unpopular and increasingly pointless war in Southeast Asia, the stage was set for a spasm of political unrest in the spring of 1970 on college campuses across the United States, including the University of Utah.

President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia triggered a wave of campus protests, one of which resulted in the violent deaths of four students at Kent State University at the hands of Ohio National Guard soldiers on May 4, 1970.

The next day, someone tossed a crude firebomb into the U’s ROTC building. Thus began a string of daily protests on the Salt Lake City campus that culminated with the occupation of the Park Building, the university’s administrative hub, by hundreds of students and other protesters—85 of whom wound up in jail.

Hundreds of students occupied the Park Building on May 7, 1970, resulting in 85 arrests. Credit: Marriott Library Special Collections

The events of May 1970 left a lasting legacy, still apparent in the laws of Utah and the shape of the campus itself. Now five decades later, protests roiled the campus in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza and spiraling confrontations over culture war issues. Nine U student activists face criminal charges after their arrests for disrupting a film screening they denounced as hateful transphobic propaganda.

Activism on campus over cultural hot-button issues has drawn the attention of the Utah Legislature, whose 2024 General Legislative Session is considering bills that could affect free speech on campus. In the meantime, U administrators have reiterated their commitment to open and robust discussion, but also their obligation to ensure the safety and security of everyone on campus.

That means the time, place and manner of people exercising their right to free expression is subject to regulations that seek to balance those rights with the functioning of the campus. University administrators have also clarified the rules for posting materials. Additionally, U leaders outlined the role of free speech in academic freedom and campus life in an open letter to university faculty.

“The University of Utah is steadfast in its commitment to creating a climate conducive to learning, research, innovation and care,” wrote Senior Vice Presidents Mitzi Montoya and Michael Good. “We encourage members of our community to treat each other with dignity and we are mindful of the impacts to our campus when that dignity is lost.”

College campuses across the U.S. have always been laboratories for debating conflicting ideologies and the expression of free speech. The University of Utah is no different. Free speech clashes on campus have ebbed and flowed over the years—flaring up in the early years of the institution, when faculty rights to academic freedom were defined, during the anti-war protests of the 1970s and 80s, and most recently during the culture war conflicts of the 2000s.

In many ways, the most recent campus protests have been shaped by those that came before, and the policies and state laws adopted in response.

Other than the disturbances outside the Shapiro event, the Nov. 1 citations were probably the first time students were charged after demonstrating on campus since the Park Building sit-in, according to Jack Newell.

On second thought, he added, there was an incident in the mid-1970s when streaking was a thing on college campuses.

Newell recalled a time when two young women stripped naked during an event in the Union Ballroom. They streaked from the west end of the elevated causeway behind the ballroom to the east end, where they were apprehended.

“One of the policemen said to me afterward, ‘I didn’t know where to grab them.’ It was a real dilemma for law enforcement,” Newell said. “It wasn’t a protest. It was youthful exuberance and the general flipping the finger at the establishment.”

U students gather on the steps of the Park Building on Nov. 9 to protest Israel's 2023 invasion of Gaza. Credit: Brian Maffly

It’s unclear whether the streakers were ever charged. But as a result of the latest free speech conflicts on campus, several students face misdemeanor charges for disrupting university operations—a change in state law that can be traced to those Vietnam-era protests.

On Nov. 1, 2023, several student protestors showed up at a screening of an anti-Trans documentary and chanted their disapproval of the film’s anti-trans message.

After 15 minutes, according to University Police, officers tried to clear the room of the protestors, but many locked arms, refusing to leave and blocking officers’ access to the doors. To de-escalate the situation, police canceled the event. Nine of the protesters have been charged with misdemeanors, including disrupting the operation of a school, interfering with police and disorderly conduct. Many were arraigned in Salt Lake City Justice Court on Jan. 17. They await pretrial hearings in the coming weeks.

The first charge is based on a statute the Utah Legislature first considered following the Park Building occupation and subsequent acquittal of the 80+ alleged trespassers.

The citations issued against the protesters did not stem from any official disapproval of their politics, according to Keith Squires, the U’s chief safety officer.

The role of University Police is to preserve public safety on campus and ensure that every student, faculty and staff member can lawfully exercise their right to free speech, according to Squires. Activists may not infringe on others’ right to exercise their free speech and may not interfere with officers’ efforts to maintain public safety.

“The protest at Marriott Library on Nov. 1 complied with the law up to the point that the protesting students shouted down the scheduled event, refused to leave, touched officers, locked arms and dangerously blocked their movements to the exits of the conference room,” he said. “At that point, the protest became a public safety risk for all.”

While the latest protests and charges have roiled campus with concerns about charging students and quashing unpopular speech, the unofficial U historians—Dryer and Newell—say the university is bumping along as it always has.

“We have to refocus on our humanity and the common belief the universities are places that are aspirational,” said Taylor Randall, university president. “We aspire to make society better. And universities ought to be ground zero where those principles are taught.”