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Monday, March 16, 2015

Do offensive pictures justify violence?

This video raises many complicated issues. It's a confrontation between students and anti-abortion protestors on the University of Oregon campus on March 10, 2015.

Most of the buzz on the internet is about the first policeman who tried to defuse a potentially violent confrontation by telling the main protestor that he did not have the right to free speech on a private university campus. He almost succeeded in getting the protestor to hide his offensive signs.

When the sargeant showed up, he overruled his officer and told the protestor he could display his signs and stay on the campus. I agree with the sergeant but I have a great deal of sympathy with what the first policeman was trying to do.

In any case, the issue that troubles me is the behavior of the students before the first policeman shows up and after both policemen leave, beginning around 15 minutes. A student, Allison Rutledge, tries to destroy the protestor's sign.

Here's how the University of Oregon newspaper reports it [Protesters damage graphic anti-abortion sign following heated debate on UO campus].
“There’s a limit to what people should be forced to look at,” Rutledge said. “We didn’t like it and we actually made him put his sign away. We had no problem with his opinion, but it was his sign. You can’t just show whatever you want.”

The Oregon Supreme Court in 1984 ruled that any censorship of material considered obscene is unconstitutional.

After Rutledge’s back-and-forth with the activist, other protesters began to call for his dismissal from campus.

“This is our campus and we don’t want it — we don’t want you and your ugliness,” another unidentified woman said in the video.

“This is so violent. This is obscene,” the woman told the anti-abortion activist. “This is not part of your First Amendment rights. This is unbelievable.”

Although Rutledge and the other protesters didn’t violate the activist’s First Amendment rights — that’s only a claim that can be used when the government attempts to suppress speech — Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank Lomonte said that liability for theft or battery comes into play when personal property is involved.

“It’s never a good idea to use violence to silence a person whose speech you find upsetting,” Lomonte said.
By the end of the video it looks like the anti-abortion protestors are getting ready to leave. I suspect they were afraid they would be harmed by the small crowd of students. I think they were right to be afraid.

What do YOU think, dear readers? Did these University of Oregon students behave in a way that would make you proud if you were a student there?

And what do you think of the idea that the university campus belongs to undergraduates, "get off our campus." And even if you accept that premise (I don't), does that small group of students speak for all undergraduates?


  1. Absolutely not. It seems that there's been a substantial and disturbing on-campus trend toward what I would classify as action-oriented intolerance. In other words, it's not enough to tell someone that you'd rather they not show this sign or chant that slogan, but you're justified in tearing up their sign or preventing them from speaking.

    I find it unacceptable and worrying, and think your comment about fear of violence is correct.

    Speak for all undergraduates? I can only hope not, but I have no recent experience to draw on.

    And universities as havens of free speech, conflicting ideas, and civilized debate? Not so much ...

  2. Most of the buzz on the internet is about the first policeman who tried to defuse a potentially violent confrontation by telling the main protestor that he did not have the right to free speech on a private university campus.

    The problem is that the Un. of Oregon (personal note, a million years ago I was a post doc there) is not a private university, it's a state university so the officer was incorrect.

    1. I didn't express myself very well. I know it's a public university but it's still private property. I think you can be asked to leave if you are not a student or an employee. It's the same with government offices and public high schools.

      Universities try to be as open as possible but I don't think that any citizen has the legal right to come on university property and cause a disruption.

  3. Of course the anti-abortion activists had a right to their speech, and the students had a right to rebut them -- short of shutting down the anti-abortionists and damaging property. We had a group similar to this on our campus a couple years ago, using pictures with graphic signs, etc. I recall they seemed to just be pretty much ignored.

    I think it would be very helpful for everyone to take a mini-civics lesson in these matters on proper and lawful behavior. I think do not know what they can or can not lawfully do, for lack of clear guidance on how to behave when emotions are running high. I can see them as good and caring people, who knew their rights of choice regarding abortion, but they were also ignorant and they waded in over their heads.

  4. Protesters like to be attacked and/or arrested. The worst thing that can happen to a protest is to have it ignored. So if you disagree with the sentiment, what is the most effective course of action?

  5. I think that we have to look at this in perspective. What was the protester's motive? To instigate an incident? Of course. There is little doubt that he wanted to instigate some level of "violence". And that he wanted to make it a media event. After all, who was the cameraman there with? I am pretty sure that he wasn't provided by the student paper (the quality of the video was too high).

    And why would he be protesting at a university campus instead of at the local mall? Could it be because a university may have a much higher proportion of people (kids) who are still trying to come to terms with their maturity and emotions (and hormones)? Could it be because he is more likely to trigger the type of reaction that he wants amongst a group of teens than he is amongst a mixed age group?

    I watched this video (produced by the protester) and there were two people I was impressed by. The first cop, and the students. Yes, they stepped over the edge when they tried to damage the sign, but they didn't go any further.

    With regard to whether or not it is a private university, the point is moot. The students (or their parents) are still paying a significant chunck of change for tuition. That makes it their space, within reason. How much did the protester pay for the upkeep of the university?

    1. I'm disappointed that you were impressed by the behavior of the students. If students at a Christian university had behaved that way toward women protestors advocating abortion, I doubt you would have been impressed..

      I'm fascinated by the idea that paying tuition gives American students more rights and privileges (and a sense of ownership) at university than German students who don't pay tuition.

  6. Larry, I am certainly not condoning the students behaviour, but I expected it to be worse. And that is exactly what the protester wanted. The students are not without blame, but neither is the protester.

    A German student at a German university has just as many rights and privileges as a Canadian student at a Canadian university. I was only talking about a sense of ownership. If I pay to go to an amusement park I will have different expectations than if I was allowed in for free. It does not give me any more "real" rights or privileges, but I may still perceive that I do.

    1. You blame the anti-abortion protestor for causing students to threaten his property and his safety?

      Are you sure you want to go there?

      Do you also blame the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists?

      There is no excuse for violence.

    2. Larry, again, I am not condoning the behaviour of the students. But equating this to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is apples and oranges.

      The cartoonists, if I read their intentions correctly, wanted to stimulate debate and discussion, although not in a manner I would choose. This protester did not want to stimulatevdebate and discussion, he wanted to trigger a reaction that he could catch on video to undermine the motivations of the pro-choice advocates. I doubt very much if the cartoonists wanted the reaction that they got.

      If I were to advise the students, I would tell them to completely ignore this type of protester. That is the one thing that would drive them crazy. But this advice comes from almost sixty years of experience and, hopefully, wisdom. At the immature age of 18, 19 and 20, I don't know that I would have behaved any better than these students. Which, really, is my point. This protester was manipulative and selected a location where he could readily access and where he was likely to get the most reaction. If access to high schools was as easy as it was a few decades ago, I have no doubt that he would have selected that venue over the university.

    3. Acartia Tonsa, I think you miss the point. What you thought the protestor wanted to do is irrelevant. Free speech by it's nature is often provocative to some people. You need to separate the behavior from the principle and doing this makes the comparison with Charlie Hebdo perfectly reasonable. We should condemn all violent or oppressive behavior that attempts to restrict free speech just as we should condemn any violent behavior that might be used to support it. But you can hardly accuse this protestor of using violent conduct to advance his obnoxious views.

  7. I am a strong, activeish, Pro-lifer.
    The attack on the signs was based on hosyilty to the power of the signs. Nothing to do with offensive material. If any like signs for a liberal cause were used there would be no protest but a outrage against CENSORSHIP.
    Anyways people should only use aggresive pictures in important ways in important places.
    Everybody think universities matter more because they think the students will matter more in shaping society. So all sides are lobbying the importantt people and it gets fanatical.

    What is the faith and law on free speech?
    What is the contract?
    I understand free speech is a faith or even a right in america. I know the government can't interfere with free speech yet does this mean Yanks have free speech rights in their fathers homes?
    People don't have free speech on this blog and agree to it upon particapating. Its a contract. Comments are deleted here and its not rejection of our free rights. i(ts a contract with the host we accept upon involvement.
    There is a spirit/ or even a law for pure free speech in America and so universities are under this law. if students are under speech codes then its a contract.
    I insist pornography or offensive things can be voted in as illegal.
    In reality the founders of free speech did not anticipate how it would play out. They were not that smart.
    They simply wanted truth, important truth, to not be stopped by any power in the nation.
    They didn't mean interference in chhurch services by other faiths or speaking back to mom and dad.
    It was for important things and not regular talking life.
    universities should be MORE free eh!
    Yet creationists know there is a IRON BLANKET smothering opposition in acedemia in scholarship or student awareness.
    People show they believe in the power or words/images and then want to stop them.
    Its a historic instinct and alive and well today.
    There is a need for a total national(s) review of freedom of speech.
    Right now its just the aggresive people, street or establishment, that are ruling in the vacuum of settled conclusions on thought, conscience, and speech.
    Canada is worst then America at this time.

  8. Did these University of Oregon students behave in a way that would make you proud if you were a student there?