As the saying goes, sometimes the defense of free speech compels us to defend speech we otherwise abhor. It apt ly describes a situation that occurred this year at my school, the University of Oregon (UO).
UO received national attention for a free-speech controversy that divided students, faculty, and community members. Associated Press covered the story, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave UO a speech code rating of Red (failing). The controversy centered on the Pacifica Forum. No relation to the Pacifica Foundation and its Left-leaning radio stations, the Pacific Forum is a self-proclaimed free-speech organization. It has held meetings on or near the UO campus since the group was founded in 1994. On its Web site, the Forum says its central purpose is “to provide information and perspective on the issues of war and peace, militarism and pacifism, violence and non-violence.” The group hosts debates about controversial issues, among them the meaning of the swastika, the magnitude of the Holocaust, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since early 2010, the group-and its members’ rights to assemble on campus-have been challenged by both student and community activists for the questionable medley of speakers it has been hosting in student-fee funded space.
This controversy had been brewing for years. It bubbled over toward the end of 2009, when news began to circulate that the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization, had declared the Pacifica Forum a hate group. Students began to organize protests against the Pacifica Forum on a mass scale; this caused such an influx of people at Forum events that the group began reserving larger rooms to accommodate the crowds. The protesters specialized in loud and disruptive tactics. They would interrupt speakers with shouts, organized movements, hand-clapping, or feet stomping. The rationale for such behavior was that the hate speech that the Forum was engaged in was so powerful that it not only threatened the fabric of the university but actually robbed students of their ability to feel safe on campus. Some protesters-including the president, vice president, and other members of the student government (ASUO), called on UO administrators to remove the group from campus on the basis that student safety should be of utmost concern and freedom of speech secondary.
I was introduced to the controversy through Facebook. My news feed kept informing me of friends joining a group called “UofO Students and Community Members against the Pacifica Forum.” Curious but only peripherally aware of the controversy, I joined the group in order to read and comment on its wall and discussion board. Reading the posts, I became frustrated by what appeared to be very biased interpretations and explanations of events. I did not feel that I was being given an honest picture. Then, I came across a diamond in the rough: a post by a fellow officer in the Center for Inquiry-affiliated campus organization of which I’m a member, the Alliance of Happy Atheists (AHA!).
AHA!’s approach to campus activism is somewhat different than that favored by many other freethinking student organizations. Our purpose is to humanize the image of the nonreligious; therefore, we strive to represent the views of all atheists at UO, in part by taking a very inclusive and cautious approach to campus involvement. This approach has paid off in the sense that AHA! has a large and diverse student membership. The downside is that AHA! has less flexibility in taking stances on issues such as hate speech, since to do so would be to ignore the views of a significant portion of our constituents. Regardless, by and large, the members of AHA!’s executive board took strong personal stances on the issue of free speech for the Pacifica Forum, and several of us worked together to defend its freedom of speech and take a stand against censorship from the Left or Right.
Back to Facebook. On the group for anti-Pacifica Forum protesters, one of my fellow AHA! officers had started a new thread with a polite inquiry about the claim of violence that had been resonating among anti-Forum protesters since an incident on January 8. Devon Schlotterbeck, maintainer of the Facebook group and one of the chief organizers of the protests, replied almost immediately. I present her reply verbatim: “Part of it is understand that this group is in fact violent. And also that there are ways of being violent which dont include punching or kicking. Traumatizing rape survivors is incredibly violent and just plain wrong. Promoting rape, which is an extremely violent thing, is promoting violence….”
The statement struck me as disingenuous. Schlotterbeck enumerated multiple reasons for why she felt that the Forum presented a violent threat. It seemed clear to me that each “fact” she cited was either irrelevant to the question of safety or was not a fact at all. The claim that the Pacifica Forum promoted rape seemed especially far-fetched. I started to suspect that some anti-Forum protesters were exaggerating their fears of violence as an excuse to shut down the Forum because of the viewpoints espoused by some of its members. What would the record show? I pored over the online archives of two of UO’s newspapers, the Oregon Commentator and the Oregon Daily Emerald, trying to follow the evolution of anti-Forum rhetoric and unearth more facts about the January 8 incident in which a Forum member had allegedly promoted rape.
What I found confirmed my suspicions. The rhetoric of anti-Forum activists had only recently begun to center on safety. Appeals to safety surfaced after a specific incident that did indeed involve a mention of rape. Prior to that incident, opponents of the Forum sought to ban its “offensive speech” with rhetoric that appealed to diversity, inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance. Their collective argument seemed to be that to allow racist words to be spoken on the UO campus effectively supported racism, and that by ignoring the concerns of students offended by the speech aired at Forum meetings, the school was not doing its part to promote a climate welcoming to a diverse student body.
The night of January 8, 2010, marked a turning point in anti-Pacifica Forum protesters’ rhetoric. Some thirty protestors attended a Pacifica meeting that night; between curious observers, protesters, police officers, and actual participants in the Forum’s meeting, the room was packed. Several speakers gave Nazi salutes. This sent emotions flying, and attendees lined up to take advantage of a question period. UO student Katie Hulse stepped up to the microphone and criticized a cruel slur one speaker had made against feminist icon Andrea Dworkin at a previous meeting-namely, that Dworkin was too ugly to rape. Hulse spoke passionately about how deeply the comment had offended her. The speaker replied by assuring Hulse that she was “not ugly.” What happened next can be pinpointed as the precise turning point of anti-Forum rhetoric. “Are you saying that you want to rape me?” Hulse demanded, adding through tears, “You’re making me uncomfortable. This is unacceptable.”
This emotionally charged exchange was far more effective than the shouting and sign-waving of angry protesters. After Hulse left the room, ASUO president Emma Kallaway stepped to the microphone and said: “I have just witnessed you insult a highly educated woman who is a valued member of our campus and believe that you being here in our student union is a safety issue.” The magic word had been spoken; opponents of the Forum now had a stout new arrow in their quivers. Censorship-versus-free speech arguments have since been replaced by safety concerns. The Pacifica Forum needed to be removed from campus because it posed a safety threat, and freedom of speech was not at issue at all.
Instead of supporting Hulse and projecting the image of strength, unity, and resilience in response to the Forum speaker’s callous and offensive comment-as the protesters could easily have done-they chose opportunism instead, capitalizing on an individual’s genuine pain and fear and seeking to spread that fear to as many people as possible in order to achieve their goals. After all, anti-Forum activists’ previous arguments that were rooted in their moral authority as opponents of racism, while heartfelt and genuine, hadn’t delivered results. That irritating bit of red tape we call the First Amendment kept getting in the way. When the perfect opportunity to change their rhetoric presented itself, they couldn’t let it pass.
At the next week’s Pacifica Forum meeting, protester presence swelled tenfold. Many of the estimated three hundred protesters represented various identity groups on campus. They had the new talking-point: “Many in the crowd said the forum was a threat to student safety,” reported the Emerald. Forum protesters had found a way around the First Amendment.
This brings us back to my conversation with protest organizer Schlotterbeck on Facebook. After I questioned the “facts” she had cited as evidence that Forum rhetoric was equivalent to threats of violence, she replied: “It is a safety issue because groups like these often incite violence from other people-people who go to their meetings, hear their ideas, and decide to actually commit those violent ideas against others. There is mass fear of this group, particularly because groups like this have a history of doing really horrible things, most notably to people of color and people who identify in the LGBTQQI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Intersex] community.” This struck me as a wild generalization, one that was not only hypocritical but dangerous. The “safety issue” was being used as a tool for social control.
I never found out why there was “mass fear” of the Forum’s small membership and its even smaller roster of speakers, reliably outnumbered by protesters at meeting after meeting. Just as the debate became intense-with yet another AHA! executive and several other students joining me to criticize what we considered to be hysterical fear-mongering-I was banned from the group’s page. I was shocked at first, then just angry. Who had the nerve to censor an anti-censorship argument? What better proof could one ask for that the most influential protest organizers were themselves attaching limited value to the sharing of ideas?
I documented the incident on my personal Facebook page and collaborated with the two other AHA! officers involved to spread the word about what we had experienced. They were both banned shortly after I was. Next the entire thread was deleted, but one of the AHA! officers was able to retrieve it from her iPhone. Armed with the document, she pressed Schlotterbeck to state her reason for the bans and the deletion of the thread (in which, I should note, all participants had been self-restrained and respectful). Schlotterbeck claimed that unnamed victims of sexual assault had complained that the thread was offensive. Whether or not anyone actually complained will remain unknown. The other AHA! officer contacted the Commentator and arranged for us to be interviewed about being censored for voicing critical views on the anti-Pacifica Forum Facebook group.
Not long after the Facebook incident, something much bigger happened. One morning, a sixteen-square-foot swastika was found freshly painted on the carpet in the UO LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning, and Allied) office. Rumor immediately blamed the Forum for the vandalism, though there was no evidence of its involvement. In another incident, an anti-Semitic note was found taped to a locker-no one knew by whom. Again, blame was placed on Pacifica; protesters cited the incident as yet another reason why the group should be banned.
The climate of fear was now so pervasive that I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the Bush administration’s War on Terror following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Instead of a War on Terror, we at UO were embroiled in a War on Hate-except that in the protesters’ vocabulary, “hate” seemed to mean any speech that anyone might claim made groups of students “feel unsafe.” According to the Commentator, “[ASUO] blamed the group’s rhetoric for three recent racially motivated attacks in Eugene. [So now the Forum’s tentacles extended off campus as well!] Some said the group’s presence in the EMU [student union], which also houses multicultural student unions and support groups for women, makes them fear racism and sexual abuse in the building.” This quote catalyzed for me the great disconnect at the base of most anti-Forum “safety” rhetoric: advocates for allegedly marginalized students seemed excessively eager to infantilize them by playing up their victim status and fanning the flames of fear-as in the “promoting rape” incident, when anti-Pacifica activists had an opportunity to encourage strength, resilience, and solidarity but instead chose to emphasize fear, powerlessness, and the need for legal protection.
The controversy still rages on. The solution reached by the administration (which was, rightfully, concerned with being sued for violating the law) was to move Forum operations to another, less accessible building far removed from the center of campus though still technically on campus. Things died down temporarily. But a dozen or so protesters set off stink bombs at a Pacifica meeting, were cited by police, and are now being defended by protester sympathizers.
My experiences surrounding the controversy taught me two important lessons: unchecked political theory can be dangerous, and the theory on which we base our laws must be based in fact. Witnessing the behavior of the protesters, who seemed willing to justify any means in order to achieve their goal of barring the Pacifica Forum from campus, I recalled Karl Popper. Popper, highly regarded for his contributions to the philosophy of science, including popularizing the method of falsifiability, once spoke of his disillusionment with historicist social theory due to an incident he witnessed in which several people, including some of his communist friends, were shot and killed during a riot caused by the communists. When Popper told party leaders about the incident, they replied that such deaths were necessary in the move toward the inevitable worker’s revolution. This led Popper to question the ability of social theory to predict future events, which he decided rested on faulty reasoning. His conception of methodological individualism, which insisted that social theory must take into account individual actions, challenged the idea that social theories alone could explain all historical events.
Methodological individualism has its own set of problems, which I won’t enumerate here, but regardless, I find it useful for critiquing the methods of the anti-Pacifica Forum protesters. The kind of ideology that led to the employment of disruptive protest techniques, including the use of stink bombs, fear-mongering, and Internet censorship, was the same kind of ideology that Popper reacted against. Those who shaped the protests were informed by various critical theories-feminist theory, Marxist theory, critical race theory, etc., and the like problem with social theories of this kind is that although like religion they are not inherently bad, when used the wrong way they can become vehicles for harm and destruction. Another problem is that they don’t tell the whole story-the race relations that actually play out on UO’s campus are more complex than any social theory can explain. Efforts to depict them as conflicts between groups without regard for individual motivations inescapably shortchange real contexts. While I have no doubt that liberals espousing the dangers of unchecked hate speech mean well, their ideological reasoning does not enjoy the basis in science it would need in order to justify limits on speech based on viewpoint. Political philosophy would do well to borrow a page from the book of the philosophy of science-paying particular attention to the issue of demarcation.