Free Speech on Campus graphic

Criminal charges filed against Arizona students protesting Border Patrol, later dropped – April 2019

Tucson, AZ

After a video went viral in conservative circles and amid ensuing pressure from supporters of strict immigration policies, three students were charged at the University of Arizona (UA) for protesting a campus presentation by agents from the United States Border Patrol. Following an investigation, the charges were subsequently dropped.

Key Players

Denisse Melchor, 20; Mariel Bustamante, 22; and Marianna Ariel Coles-Curtis, 27, are students at the University of Arizona  who faced criminal charges after protesting an appearance by Border Patrol agents on the school’s campus in Tucson, about 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Art Del Cueto is vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, closely aligned with President Donald Trump.

Robert Robbins has served as president of the University of Arizona since June 2017.

Further Details

Melchor, Bustamante, and Coles-Curtis all protested a March 19, 2019, presentation by Border Patrol agents to the Criminal Justice Association, a student group, on UA’s campus.

Video showed protesters outside the room recording the agents and calling them “an extension of the KKK” and “murderers,” according to The Arizona Republic. Protesters also followed the agents as they left the classroom, chanting “Murder Patrol,” the Republic reported.

Over the following days, such videos went viral among conservative media. Many cited them as examples of Free Speech being suppressed on college campuses. The days after the protest also saw threats against Melchor, who said the university had initially been supportive of him. “I got a call from the Dean of Students Office,” he told the Daily Beast. “They’re like, ‘Are you okay, we’ve been receiving so many threats naming you.’”

Others on campus, including student government leaders and beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also came out as critical of the Border Patrol’s appearance. DACA, an executive policy established by former President Barack Obama in 2012, allows individuals brought to the United States illegally as children to apply for deferment from deportation and gain eligibility to work, but has been challenged by the Trump administration.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to protect, support and speak out for all [UA students], including our DACA and undocumented students,” the student body president and vice presidents wrote in a March 21 statement. “Simply put, unannounced visits by the U.S. Border Patrol are unacceptable.”

The student government’s statement provoked the local Border Patrol union to respond on social media, according to the Daily Beast. The union called the protest an “attack [on] Caucasian students.” Del Cueto furthered this rhetoric: “Send me the names of the actual illegal aliens at the school and their addresses, and I will be glad, on behalf of the Border Patrol union, to send any type of information when agents are going to be at their school,” he said in a radio interview.

In a March 25 letter, Judicial Watch, an activist group that said it was “assisting” Del Cueto, called on Robbins to investigate the incident for violations of both civil law and UA’s student code of conduct.


Three students charged with crimes in Border Patrol protest

Melchor, Bustamante, and Coles-Curtis were all charged with “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution,” a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to six months in jail. Melchor was also charged with “threats and intimidation,” another misdemeanor.

In a March 29 letter to the community announcing the charges. Robbins called the students’ protest a “dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech on this campus.” He added, “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”

Robbins also announced that the UA dean of students would investigate the incident for potential breaches of the student code of conduct, the Republic reported.

Melchor says charges resulted from outside pressure on UA, claims suppression of Free Speech

Melchor, one of the students charged, said the charges came only after UA received pushback from online critics, including Del Cueto; additionally, she painted the charges as an attack on her Free Speech rights.

“After del Cueto started coming out and putting pressure on the school and [its campus police force] to investigate, it’s like the Dean of Students went silent with me and stopped checking in,” Melchor told Daily Beast. “I feel like this is an attempt to silence me.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that supports Free Speech, was highly critical of the charges, insisting the content of the protesters’ speech was “plainly protected by the First Amendment.” The group also called the letter from Judicial Watch and del Cueto a “clear demand that the university violate the First Amendment.”

Charges against protesters dropped

The criminal charges against the three students were abruptly dropped on April 23, though the university said it would continue its own review of the incident.

External References

University of Arizona will charge 2 students over protest of Border Patrol event on campus, Arizona Republic

University of Arizona students charged after Border Patrol protest, Arizona Republic

Student in Viral Border Patrol Video: University Caved to Pressure to Punish Me, Daily Beast

FIRE statement on charges against University of Arizona students

Charges Dropped for University of Arizona Student Border Patrol Protestors Known As the Arizona 3, TeenVogue

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded June 6, 2019