NMSU Gets More Free Speech Protection

Billy Huntsman


Example of free speech on campus. Photo by Billy Huntsman.

By Billy Huntsman

Managing Editor

New Mexico State University’s Freedom of Expression policy recently underwent revisions after the formation of a Free Speech Task Force. The committee proposed changes to the policy after meeting throughout the 2014-2015 school year. The changes were approved by NMSU’s Board of Regents on July 21, 2015, and went into effect on September 4.

The task force was established to address perceived need to update and improve NMSU’s free speech policy. On the task force was NMSU student Alan Dicker who, along with other students involved in the radical left group Aggie Solidarity, believed his freedom of speech rights had been violated under NMSU’s old policy.

“There were a number of events over the last four or five years which pushed a number of students along with myself, all of us involved in activism/protests, to believe stronger free expression protections could be useful at NMSU,” Dicker says.

The impetus to create the task force came from one such event, which received much attention from local media.

In September 2013, Dicker and number of other NMSU students were peacefully protesting at a career fair on campus.

“We were protesting the presence of organizations like the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Lockheed Martin (a weapons manufacturer, among other concerns) on campus,” Dicker says. “These kinds of military/intelligence organizations have a longstanding relationship with NMSU, which implies NMSU’s tacit support for their activities. That’s what we wanted to call attention to. We wanted students to see a different opinion and at least consider arguments about why we shouldn’t support the repressive power of the State.”


Photo by Billy Huntsman.

At this event, Dicker stood beside the NSA booth with a sign reading, “Work for Big Brother. Apply here!” when NMSU police ordered the protesters—about 15, described by Dicker as “quiet, sign-holding”—out of Corbett Center under threat of arrest. Dicker, who had not been enrolled at NMSU that semester, refused to leave and was arrested under the charges of disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, and resisting an officer.

“Another student was cited for disorderly conduct for leaving a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 (a dystopian novel written during the Cold War, envisioning a society oppressed by dictatorship and constant government surveillance) on the NSA table,” Dicker says in a Las Cruces Sun-News editorial published on August 3, 2015.

The charges against Dicker were eventually dropped.

“A few students and a faculty member proposed the task force after threatening lawsuits against NMSU, and that is ultimately what led the President’s office to support the idea (of a Free Speech Task Force),” Dicker says. “To me, it is clear that the administration would not have been receptive to changing its policies if we had not threatened to sue.”

The President’s office denied this.

“Saying that the President’s Office would not have supported the task force and the changes the task force recommended had the lawsuit not been threatened just isn’t true,” says Justin Bannister, assistant director of news and media relations in the NMSU News Center.

Bannister says immediately following the 2013 career fair events, university officials reviewed NMSU’s previous free speech policy, to see if it “needed to be modernized.”

“Soon thereafter, a committee composed of university and community members was formed and did an outstanding job,” Bannister says. “The university could not be happier with their recommendations.”

The new policy is different from the old in that the former now allows acts of free expression in designated indoor spaces, whereas the former policy explicitly stated free expression was only protected in outdoor portions of campus.


Photo by Billy Huntsman.

But not all indoor spaces of campus are “free-expression zones.”

“Instead of an indoor/outdoor distinction, the new policy defines the limitations that can be placed on free expression activities according to the uses of particular ‘forums’ on campus,” Dicker says. “So a faculty office is a ‘non-public forum,’ which means that the faculty or department head can impose heavy restrictions on what kind of expression is allowed there, as long as it’s content neutral. In contrast, a building lobby or outdoor walkway would usually be a ‘public forum,’ which means any kind of expression activity can occur as long as it doesn’t break a law or cause a major disruption.”


Photo by Billy Huntsman.

Dicker says free speech is mutually beneficial for students and the university.

“You can’t have a vibrant exchange of ideas without (free speech), and free expression rights need to be defended principally because they allow people to question and confront ‘from below’ the narratives promoted by institutions and people with power,” he says. “Without good free expression protections, it becomes very easy for people with access to power—whether in government offices or business or university administration—to utilize repressive tactics and silence people.”


Photo by Billy Huntsman.

Protesting for reasons different than free speech

Though pleased with NMSU’s adoption of policy revisions, “I remain disappointed that the reasons we were protesting in the first place have been largely ignored,” Dicker says in his editorial.

The initial purpose of his protesting, Dicker says, was to draw attention to and question the ethics of NMSU’s relations with such organizations as the CIA, the NSA, and Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Protection (a.k.a., Border Patrol).

Though there was no explicit confirmation of this claim, Vimal Chaitanya, NMSU’s vice president for research, did confirm NMSU works with the Department of Defense, a division of which is the NSA, as well as the CIA.

“NMSU works with many government agencies and private companies, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense,” Chaitanya says.

Dicker’s protesting and criticizing of NMSU’s relationships with these agencies stems from a belief that “we should be hesitant to partner with any military or intelligence-related organizations, considering that the nation we live in has a massive military presence around the world, that is the world’s greatest arms producer, that has a long imperialist history.”

Dicker says NMSU’s relationships with these agencies are public knowledge “to some extent,” such as research contracts coming from these agencies and NMSU extending invitations for these agencies to attend career fairs or conferences.

Dicker specifically cites the Physical Science Laboratory in Anderson Hall, which requires government clearance to enter, presumably because of the research conducted there.

The issue of drone research

“NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory promotes itself as a national research hub for drone aircraft, much of which is funded by the military or military contractors,” Dicker says, going on to say the U.S. “is currently terrorizing people in Africa and the Mid-East with technology like drone aircraft.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit news organization, maintains a “Drone War” tab on its website, replete with drone-related deaths and injuries statistics in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  These drone strikes were reportedly ordered by either the CIA or under covert operations by the U.S.  For full counts of injuries and casualties, visit BIJ’s website.

The Round Up/Oncore Magazine attempted to contact the PSL for comment, but received no response.


Anderson Hall, 1050 Stewart St. Photo by Billy Huntsman.

Vimal Chaitanya, NMSU’s vice president for research, denied Dicker’s claim.

“NMSU does not promote itself ‘as a national research hub for drone aircraft,’” he says.

NMSU, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, operates the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center.  Through the center, 15,000 square-miles of southwestern New Mexico are open for UAS flights, according to the UAS FTC section on the PSL’s website.

Additionally, NMSU’s PSL has for the last 17 years, since the UAS FTC was established in 1998, hosted an annual Technical Analysis and Applications Center conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, north of Albuquerque.

A May 2015 press release by Dennis Zaklan also seems to contradict Chaitanya’s statement.

“NMSU has led the nation in bringing together the key players in UAS research, development, test, and evaluation,” the press release, titled “NMSU UAS Test Flight Center earns new FAA authorization,” says.

There is evidence to support the idea that NMSU’s drone research will be used for military purposes.

In a partnership with UAS manufacturer AeroVironment, NMSU conducted tests in 2012 and 2014 in the abovementioned flight space to test the abilities of AeroVironment’s Puma, Raven, and Wasp UAS in day, dusk, and night conditions, as reported by Darrell J. Pehr, director of news for NMSU’s News Center, in a news release titled “NMSU Physical Science Lab tests small unmanned aircraft in dusk, night conditions.”

These UAS “are designed to provide valuable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and communications, including real-time tactical reconnaissance, tracking, combat assessment and geographic data, directly to the small tactical unit or individual warfighter, thereby increasing flexibility in mission planning and execution,” says AeroVironment’s website in the Tactical ISR section.

AeroVironment frequently receives military contract orders, as in 2011, when the U.S. Army contracted an order for more than $8 million in Raven UAS and “spares packages.”  Search for Space Daily‘s article “AeroVironment Receives New Orders for Digital Raven Systems” to read more.

Drone aircrafts are also being used in the Borderlands.  In an audit of Homeland Security by the Office of the Inspector General in 2014, drone aircraft were responsible for the detection of more than 18,000 illegal aliens and ‘smugglers’, presumably drug smugglers.  Of these 18,000, 2,000 were apprehended by UAS.  How many of these aliens were drug smugglers and how many were only aliens the audit does not specify.  To read the complete audit, search for “U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program Does Not Achieve Intended Results or Recognize All Costs of Operations”.

The other agencies

Other examples of NMSU’s involvement with the agencies that Dicker was protesting include Homeland Security trainings on campus, about which NMSU police typically send out notices, which are frequently run in the Sun-News.

“Also, the Border Patrol was using the NMSU pool all summer for training exercises,” Dicker says. “I don’t have a textual source for that, just people who witnessed it. Moreover, CBP does heavy recruiting at NMSU and DACC.”

Dicker further said this is an example of NMSU “condoning the abuse and repression” of the “many people in this region who have suffered abuse at the hands of CBP.”

Neither TRU/OM nor Bannister could find proof to support this claim.

There is evidence NMSU is involved with the NSA by means of a fellowship.  NMSU participates in the National Physical Science Consortium, a nonprofit organization sponsored by, among other organizations and agencies, the NSA.

The NPSC awards approximately $20,000 a year, for between two to six years, to accepted graduate students studying astronomy, chemistry, computer science, geology, materials science, mathematical sciences, physics, and chemical, computer, electrical, environmental, and mechanical.

The program also “obligates recipients to later work at the agency for two years,” says Dicker. The NPSC’s website says awardees should “be available to accept two summers of paid internship.”

Between 2005 and 2011, NMSU has had two students, both from the Mathematics Department, awarded fellowships from the NPSC, says Elizabeth Eres, an administrative assistant in the department, as well as listed as NMSU’s NPSC contact on the organization’s website.

“From what I remember (of the application and acceptance process), the student applies for (the fellowship) and is given an award letter, which they present to their department head,” Eres says. “Then the department head decides if the department will accept or decline the responsibility of receiving and depositing the quarterly stipends in an appropriate NMSU account, as well as paying their tuition and fees.”

Despite the program’s benefits, Dicker still questions the morality of NMSU’s partnerships with such agencies as the NSA, and encourages students at NMSU to do the same.

“At NMSU the attitude seems to prevail that partnering with these agencies is both needed and desirable,” Dicker says. “In the process of making contracts and partnerships, there is virtually no one questioning the ethics or human rights issues that arise from participating in the ‘military-industrial complex.’”

Bannister contradicted Dicker.

“The university follows federal, state, and university policies as it considers research contracts and partnerships,” Bannister says.

Further, Dicker says NMSU “goes out of its way to create a ‘welcoming atmosphere’” for agencies such as the NSA.

“Career Services, who organized the (2013) career fair (at which he was arrested), actually refunded the NSA the fee it had paid—I believe $650—to reserve a booth at the career fair so that our protests and the ensuing police action and bad publicity wouldn’t damage the relationship between the NSA and NMSU,” Dicker says.


Career Services in Garcia Annex. Photo by Billy Huntsman.

Anthony Marin, director of NMSU’s Career Services, which put on the 2013 career fair, did not confirm nor deny this claim.

“As with any visitor who comes to campus with a legitimate purpose, we try to ensure that they are able to conduct their business without unreasonable interference,” Marin says. “While we respect any individual’s right to protest the presence of any particular employer, we cannot allow those protests to disrupt the career fair or any particular employer’s ability to conduct its legitimate business on campus.”

Further, Marin says NMSU passes no judgment on which employers participate in the career fair, provided they are lawful.

“We believe our students are capable of making their own value judgments regarding which employment opportunities are appropriate for themselves,” says Marin.

NMSU is largely funded by the federal government, approximately 79 percent in 2014, according to a pie graph available on the Office of Grants and Contracts website. About 12.7 percent of this 79 percent is provided by the Department of Defense. The DoD is NMSU’s second highest contributing federal agency, behind NASA at close to 26 percent.

Office of Grants and Contracts

The pie graph from the Office of Grants and Contracts website. Photo courtesy of Office of Grants and Contracts.

“The funding is integral to NMSU being a world-class institution and provides for research staff positions, graduate and undergraduate research training and support, and research infrastructure here at NMSU,” says Chaitanya.

Dicker disagrees with him.

“My opinion of CBP, the NSA, CIA, and the military apparatus is that they are repressive organizations with long histories of widespread abuse,” Dicker says. “In general, I don’t think the university should partner with them, do their intellectual work for them, or invite them to participate in university-sanctioned activities. And if NMSU depends on them for a large part of its funding, then NMSU should change its model and focus areas.”

In regards to the claims these agencies have “long histories of widespread abuse,” Bannister says he does not know enough about the topic to comment.

When asked how NMSU—a largely federal government-funded university—should go about conducting research in order to get grants and contracts, and thereby funding, Dicker says the university should steer clear of military and intelligence agencies.

“I don’t see NMSU receiving funding or having relationships with state or federal government offices as in-and-of-itself problematic,” Dicker says.  “I think we should always question what our work/research is going towards and who benefits from it. I’m targeting military/intelligence agencies in particular here because I don’t think it is ethical to contribute in any form to increased militarization domestically or the nation’s imperialist policies worldwide. I think the institution’s politics should be explicitly against them.”

TRU/OM tried to reach the Office of Grants and Contracts for comment on how the university seeks funding for research, but received no response.

Dicker went on to say the ethics of NMSU partnering with the abovementioned agencies and corporations needs to be discussed.

“But we’re not even having the conversation at this point, partly because it’s more comfortable for the administration not to have those conversations,” he says. “NMSU’s institutional decisions about what research areas to focus on or what kind of environment to promote are necessarily political decisions, and for that reason I think there needs to be more debate over them,” Dicker says.

For guidelines regarding the new policy, visit:

07.21.15 4th draft procedural guidelines

For frequently asked questions, and information as to where to submit questions, visit:

07.21.15 FAQs

To see the final draft of the new policy, visit:

10. a. 7. rev

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