Arizona GOP lawmakers hint at university budget cuts over free speech concerns

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Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley, concentrates on his computer during a vote on the Arizona budget at the Arizona Capitol Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin / AP

By Cameron Arcand | The Center Square

Arizona Republican lawmakers are reconsidering appropriations toward public universities in the state, specifically citing free speech concerns at Arizona State University. 

The Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities started in July after an event in February with Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager, and Robert Kiyosaki at the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development dubbed “Health, Wealth & Happiness.”

Sens. Anthony Kern and Sonny Borrelli, as well as Rep. Quang Nguyen, said they would be reexamining appropriations toward the universities. Kern and Nguyen co-chair the committee.

“I think it is time for this body to really consider future appropriations, and we also need to consider legislation so to hold ABOR’s feet a little closer to the fire,” Nguyen said.

Borrelli echoed a similar sentiment about appropriations. 

“I’m open to suggestions on how much we gut from the university system,” Borrelli said. 

The lawmakers, including Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittmann, also criticized the Board of Regents.

“Shame on the entire Board of Regents, Michael Crow for their activity to condemn other conservative students, but not Students for Justice in Palestine,” Smith said. “That’s the state of public higher education.”

“I don’t know their purpose,” he added regarding the decision-making body that oversees the public universities– ASU, Northern Arizona University, and The University of Arizona. 

Kern told reporters the hearing that legislation would be introduced in January related to campus free speech, but he did not get into details.

Following the backlash from the event from Barrett, The Honors College faculty, Tom Lewis pulled his funding from the school, and the center was shut down, The Center Square reported at the time. 

The committee’s hearing on Monday focused mainly on recent actions from Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as greater concerns about the safety of Jewish students. The Center Square reported that a meeting of the ASU’s Tempe campus student government was disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters earlier this month, and ASU is investigating. 

It also continued to look at the events that led to the controversy surrounding the T.W. Lewis Center talk earlier this year. Lewis was one of the people who testified at Monday’s hearing, along with an attorney representing the university.

Before the hearing, Arizona’s legislative Democrats have decided to no longer participate in the joint committee.

“The last time the Senate and House Democratic Caucuses joined this ‘free speech’ committee on July 18, it unnecessarily lasted five hours with no discernable value to the public. This committee was nothing more than grandstanding with an attempt to further spread misinformation and division,” Senate and House Democrats said in a joint statement.

“We have no intention of dragging this out further: ASU has the responsibility – not only to their students but to the state – to follow proper protocols so all voices can be heard on campus. We know that ASU followed all traditional procedures to accommodate alt-right conservative speakers,” the statement added.

However, one Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, tweeted that she did not agree with the press release, but she was not present at the hearing.

“Not all of us agree with this joint PR,” she said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. The Center Square reached out to the senator for comment, but she did not respond in time for publication.

Republished with the permission of The Center Square.