Throughout our nation’s history, college campuses have been a focal point for deep societal divisions and unrest. Our state’s flagship institution is no exception. On April 29, 2024, approximately 300 protesters at the University of Utah expressed outrage for the devastation suffered by the Palestinian people. The people of Utah deserve an explanation of the university’s actions this past week on this complex and evolving situation.

To be clear, the University of Utah will not take a side in the current Israel-Hamas war. Public institutions in Utah are precluded by policy from doing so. Principled neutrality helps foster respect and diverse viewpoints on our campus. But I will explain the way the University of Utah managed the right to free expression within the confines of the law, the difference between divestiture at a public and private university, and the role of a university and its faculty during divisive moments in history.

I also want to give voice to the pain and anger many of our students, faculty, staff and the people of Utah feel as they observe the destruction and human suffering in Israel and Gaza. The death and destruction invoke outrage and pain. History teaches us the horror of genocide. We live in troubled times that demand our very best to relieve this suffering.

Balancing priorities and tensions

As I made decisions this past week about how to protect freedom of expression within the confines of the law, two principles weighed heavily on my mind.

First, the University of Utah does more than honor free expression — we celebrate it. Unfettered intellectual inquiry and the exchange of ideas and knowledge are the bedrock of our institution. Protests are an important form of speech and help society progress. Look no further than protests relating to civil rights and global conflicts throughout our history. Peaceful protests have a sacred and cherished place in American history and at the University of Utah.

Second, every right comes with a responsibility. The First Amendment, State of Utah Administrative Code and the University of Utah Speech Policy define reasonable limits to speech. At the University of Utah, students, faculty and others do not have the right to set up structures or camp overnight without a permit or to unlawfully occupy or trespass on University of Utah property. State of Utah administrative code (Rule R805-3) makes exceptions for camping at ticketing events and tailgating.

We’ve seen on other campuses what happens when one person’s speech and expression infringe upon the rights and safety of others. Many demonstrators at the University of Utah on April 29 and 30 were peaceful and law abiding. Others were not. After hours of discussion in good faith and after giving multiple warnings, some protesters decided to ignore state law. There are consequences to such actions. Law enforcement officers from across the Wasatch Front assisted University of Utah Police in disbanding the illegal encampment and arrested 21 people — five of whom were students.

This issue remains an active and dynamic situation. I will share here the same two-fold message we share on campus with our students and faculty and the demonstrators who have no campus affiliation: (1) We welcome all lawful manifestations of speech and expression. (2) You must peacefully assemble within the confines of the law. Ensuring that protests abide by law does not threaten free speech; rather, it preserves free speech for all of us.

Divestment demands at a public university

The national protest movement, including protesters in Utah, demands universities “disclose, divest and cut ties with Israel and war-profiteering companies.” Divestment at public universities differs significantly from private universities, which have sole control over their investment portfolios. In contrast, elected officials and state law govern public entities, like the University of Utah. In Utah, state law specifies two broad investment principles: institutional neutrality and prudent money management. Both principles limit the university’s ability to divest for geopolitical reasons.

Of particular relevance is a Utah law that explicitly prohibits government organizations from entering into a contract with businesses that boycott Israel (Utah Code § 63G-27-201). This includes investment contracts or contracts with fund managers. This law is one of more than 30 similar laws and executive orders that limit public universities in states around the U.S.

Additionally, using university endowments as political tools sets dangerous precedent. Such action in and of itself may stifle academic and political debate. We won’t do that at the University of Utah.

Where do we go from here?

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College campuses may be the place where issues are debated and demonstrations start, but they are not typically the place where issues end. Women’s suffrage required the 19th Amendment. Rosa Parks’ and Martin Luther King Jr.’s work for the “Beloved Community” required the Civil Rights Act — a journey that continues today — and the Paris Peace Accords officially ended the Vietnam War. We all have a responsibility to call on our elected officials to work toward solutions that will lead to lasting peace.

At the University of Utah, we must do our part. That starts with our faculty and students, where we create an environment of rigorous thinking, self-reflection, thoughtful dialogue and viewpoint diversity. We educate our students and community on their rights and the legal constraints of those rights, and how both work together to bring about lasting change.

The research of our incredible faculty also creates solutions. Within the university’s schools, colleges, institutes and centers, research occurs every day that builds a more peaceful and prosperous world. Faculty-led initiatives such as the Middle East Center, Barbara and Norman Tanner Center for Human Rights, Peace and Conflict Studies Program, Dan Jones Center for Public Service and Center for Global Surgery (to name just a few) promote peacemaking through inspiration and service.

Finally, as a public university, we embrace a service mission. It is incumbent upon us to model behavior that leads to greater trust and collaboration within the political landscape. We are bridgebuilders between ideas and action. Free expression plays a vital role. We serve our community, nation and world when we do so peacefully and lawfully. By doing so, we advance a new national higher education model for delivering societal impact that is good for all.

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