Gov. Spencer Cox says he’s ‘just so proud’ of how the University of Utah broke up pro-Palestine protest with police

The governor said he was also advising and talking with U. President Taylor Randall throughout the night.

(Laura Seitz | Pool) Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks to reporters during the Governor's Monthly News Conference at the PBS Utah Studios in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 16, 2024. Cox talked about campus protests at the University of Utah.

Gov. Spencer Cox said the University of Utah “absolutely did it the right way” when it disbanded a peaceful encampment on campus last month by sending in police suited in full riot gear.

The U.’s response to the pro-Palestine protest has stood out among what’s been happening at colleges nationwide — the Utah school is notably among the swiftest to bring in officers and forcefully shut down protesters. The intervention came roughly six hours after demonstrators first set up tents on Presidents’ Circle. And 21 individuals were arrested.

At his monthly news conference Thursday, the governor praised that action on April 29 for being better “when you look at other states.”

“I thought they handled it brilliantly,” he said. “… Just so proud of how that went down.”

It’s the first time Cox has spoken publicly about the protests at the state’s flagship university — with two other rallies following later in the week — that drew national attention for the use of force by law enforcement. Hundreds of officers responded from agencies across Salt Lake County and the state. Students were pushed to the ground by police with shields and then dragged off by their arms and legs.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A protester is arrested by law enforcement during the pro-Palestine rally at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.

The governor said that was the correct way to handle students and demonstrators who were breaking state law and campus policy, which both prohibit camping (even though camping in that spot has been allowed before by the university).

“There is nothing in the First Amendment that says you get to pitch a tent wherever you want,” he said, noting that he was also proud of first responders who did their job while “facing taunts and threats.”

Police shouted insults at students, as well.

Cox also confirmed that he was speaking with U. President Taylor Randall throughout the night, advising him on what steps to take.

“I was in contact with President Randall that night, and in the days that followed,” the governor said. “We had phone calls and conversations about what happened and how to respond. … We were there to support the president and his team.”

A records request from The Salt Lake Tribune for the governor’s communications with U. leaders that night about the protests was returned by his office Thursday with no responsive records.

Meanwhile, Randall put out a statement saying he would “enforce the rule of law” with any campus protests.

Cox said Thursday he’d also been in communication with the president of Utah State University, which had three days of peaceful protests, but not encampments.

Geoff Landward, the commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said during a legislative meeting earlier this month that he also supports the U.’s response to the protests.

“A university has an obligation to say these are the rules and we’re going to enforce them from the very beginning,” Landward said. “If you don’t enforce those rules, it becomes much harder to enforce them retroactively.”

Some University of Utah faculty, though, have signed a letter criticizing what they called “unprovoked and unwarranted” use of force. They’ve also called for police to no longer be present at protests on campus.

Cox, who has been a champion for his campaign “Disagree Better” — which encourages people to have civil dialogue over issues they don’t agree on —repeated Thursday that he supports free speech for students. But, he said, there are time, place and manner restrictions on that right.

“We protected those people who were protesting and doing so responsibly,” he said. “And to those who decided to break the law … they will be held accountable and have been.”

Cox also repeated that the majority of the 21 people arrested were not University of Utah students. With the updated numbers, the school has said that five of those arrested are students, one is an employee and the rest are unaffiliated.

But The Tribune has found that four of those considered unaffiliated are recent graduates of the school. One is a former employee. And six are graduates from Utah high schools and other colleges in the state, including Southern Utah University, Utah Valley University and nearby Westminster University.

So far, according to court records, none of the individuals have been formally charged. The U. has said they are being screened for misdemeanors and citations for trespassing and failing to disperse.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement form a line as protesters face them during the pro-Palestine rally at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 29, 2024.