A speaker who was shouted down one year ago returned to the University of Arizona Friday at the former president’s request to do what he couldn’t do last year – speak.
Mauricio Farah, an ombudsman for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission ( La Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos) spoke on the campus without any major incidents Friday. Farah came to Tucson to give a talk on “Mexico-U.S. Migration: Let’s Talk About Solutions,” and answer audience questions. A similar speech by Farah was shouted down before it could begin last year by about 10 to 15 anti-illegal immigration attendees, unaffiliated with the university, who demanded that the Spanish-language speech be translated or delivered in English, said Francisco Marmolejo, executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, a network of universities in Canada, Mexico and the United States that is based at the University of Arizona. The organization sponsored last February’s event and was one of 16 entities, including multiple university departments, colleges and offices, organizing last week's speech.
Friday's second attempt came as a result of a presidential invitation that leaders at another university facing a failed speech attempt recently declined to extend. After protestors stifled another speech on immigration issues at Columbia University this October, observers urged President Lee C. Bollinger -- whose response was derided by many as inadequate -- to invite Jim Gilchrist, founder of the anti-illegal immigration group, the Minuteman Project, to come back to campus and give his talk another try. While Columbia administrators have affirmed their commitment to accommodate Gilchrist’s return to campus if he is invited by a student group (the College Republicans invited him last time), a university spokesman, Robert Hornsby, said Friday that such an invitation must come from students, not the Columbia administration: “It’s not our invitation to make.”
Peter Likins, the now retired president of University of Arizona, had taken just the opposite tack eight months earlier, having sent a written apology and invitation asking Farah to return.
“It is OK to criticize the university for not providing a translation. But to shout down the speaker was unacceptable, rude and also illegal,” Likins told The Arizona Daily Star last March for a story reporting on his response. Likins did not respond to an e-mail request for comment Friday.
A University of Arizona spokesman, Johnny Cruz, said Friday morning that simultaneous translation services would be provided for the lecture, and the event would be open to the public and held in a hall with a capacity to hold 130 people. Seating was to be first-come, first-serve, with a limited numbers of chairs reserved for sponsoring organizations.
Cruz said it is typically up to event organizers to decide whether translation services should be made available for events conducted in foreign languages.
Marmolejo said the problem was that last year’s speech, which attracted 40 people, was previewed in a local newspaper without a reference to the fact that it would be in Spanish. Some attendees immediately began shouting, “‘We are in America and in America we have to speak English,’” Marmolejo said. “The situation became completely out of control. They didn’t want to stop shouting and of course it was just impossible for the speaker to deliver his speech. He was unable to say anything, because as soon as he began to speak, they began shouting.”
Friday’s speech was billed as focusing on immigration “from the perspective of the human rights component of the individuals who are migrating,” said Marmolejo, who pointed out that while Mexico's National Human Rights Commission receives federal funding, it is independent from the Mexican government and in fact offers recommendations to government entities on human rights issues. An Arizona Daily Star account of the speech -- in which Farah characterized immigration as a phenomenon, rather than a problem, that contributes to the U.S. economy -- can be read here.
"We realize it's controversial, but something that should be very clear to everybody is that universities are a space for ideas, and for dialogue," Marmolejo said.
Columbia leaders can take heart, however: No attempt to remedy a botched speech attempt will make everyone happy. Laine Lawless, the director of an anti-illegal immigration group, Border Guardians, whose members shouted a desire for translation services at last year’s event, said via e-mail Friday afternoon that she disagrees with Likins’ decision to apologize to Farah and invite him to return: “He owed Americans an apology for not providing a translation. To hold a public event only in Spanish at a university that the taxpayers have paid for is the height of Open Borders Lobby hubris.”
But when asked whether the group had any plans of protesting Friday, she responded, “As long as they are providing a translation, that satisfies us.”