University of Utah students now criminally charged after disrupting conservative club’s event

At least seven members of the student group MECHA have been charged with misdemeanors and infractions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The student group MECHA occupies the Union ballroom during a protest on the University of Utah on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Members of a University of Utah student group have been criminally charged after police say they stormed an event critical of the transgender community being held by a conservative club on campus.

So far seven members of MECHA — a group largely led by and for students of color at the U. — face counts including both Class B misdemeanors and infractions. The charges are for disrupting the operation of a school, disorderly conduct and interference with a police officer.

They were filed in Salt Lake City Justice Court over the weekend.

U. spokesperson Rebecca Walsh said the school’s police have also since identified an additional student allegedly involved and referred that individual for citations. The investigation is ongoing, Walsh added, and “additional charges could be filed as detectives continue to review footage and interviews.”

All seven individuals cited so far are enrolled students, ranging in age from 19 to 23 years old.

The Salt Lake Tribune is not naming the students at this time in part because of the level of charges.

One of the students charged spoke to The Tribune on Monday and said the club members are waiting to talk about the prosecution until they have hired attorneys. MECHA posted on its Instagram page asking for help finding legal resources and funding.

The students will be required to appear before a judge on the misdemeanor counts and could be fined up to $1,000, if found guilty of the offenses.

The charges stem from the club’s disruption of a Nov. 1 event held by another student group, Young Americans for Freedom.

YAF, a conservative club, was hosting a showing of a documentary about transgender individuals who transitioned and later returned to their gender assigned at birth. MECHA called YAF’s posters advertising the event — which claimed, “The transgender movement harms women” — transphobic and hate speech.

Members of MECHA crowded the auditorium room and shouted “trans people are welcome here” over YAF speakers. U. police officers responded and shut down the screening, according to video of the confrontation reviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune.

In a statement Monday, the U. said officers allowed the protesters to chant for 15 minutes before trying to clear the room. “As they did, several protesters inside and outside the room locked arms to block officers’ movements and access to the door,” Walsh said.

After the protest, the U. drew attention for pulling MECHA’s club sponsorship. In a Nov. 9 letter, the school said members had participated in “behavior that violates university policy.” The school said Monday that students could also face academic discipline by the dean of students.

College campuses across the country are seeing students increasingly protest and tensions rising over the Israel-Hamas war. MECHA also held a rally last month in support of Palestine, which members of the club say they feel they’re being targeted over. The school has said that’s not the case.

But the Utah System of Higher Education took action on Friday to pass new requirements on free speech on public college campuses. In those, students are specifically not allowed to shout over another group and block others from exercising their right to speech — regardless of the topic.

Geoff Landward, the interim commissioner for higher education in Utah, said even if one group sees something as hate speech, that speech is still protected “no matter how deplorable it is.”

“Many students don’t understand these basic principles of free speech,” he said.

Gov. Spencer Cox also spoke about the rules, specifically the requirement for university administrations to remain neutral on political issues, including the Israel-Hamas war.