At the University of Southern Maine last week, Muslim students called us together to talk about the local impact of the recent executive orders on immigration. At that event, an administrator advised students to cancel study abroad plans unless they had U.S. citizenship. A few days earlier, a colleague’s elderly Iranian mother-in-law had been blocked from entering the U.S. despite having a valid visa. In my Portland, among my neighbors, my colleagues, my students, we are on high alert; 12.5 percent of our city is foreign-born.

It is shocking to me, then, that a small number of USM students chose to respond to this moment of trauma, not by reaching out a hand or sharing a kind word, but instead by inviting Rep. Larry Lockman, one of the most anti-immigrant legislators in the state, to campus. I am stunned by their lack of empathy, and their recklessness, in responding to suffering with gasoline and lit matches.

The Portland Press Herald’s response to the controversy last week (Feb. 10) was unhelpful when an article suggested that a “particular concern was that students involved in the Black Lives Matter protest in July were planning to demonstrate against Lockman’s speech. … those protesters’ past willingness to violate the law poses an added risk. ‘That’s what can lead to violence,’ USM Student Senate Vice Chair Muna Adan said.”

This is outrageous. No acts of violence have been committed by Portland Black Lives Matter activists. The 18 people, including USM students, who were arrested last July were engaged in peacefully occupying an intersection, thus committing an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Journalists: Accuracy matters now more than ever. Right-wing legislators and student groups: Words have consequences. I remain deeply committed to the right to free speech. But the right to speak does not free us from responsibility for the impact of our words.

Wendy Chapkis