Free speech: At what price?

Freedom of expression is one of the most cherished ideals of academic institutions. But at the University of Oregon, an attempt by a small committee of students to de-fund a student-run conservative magazine has drawn into question whether they are violating First Amendment principles by attempting to shield the populace from hate speech.

In this year’s funding process is the Oregon Commentator, UO’s conservative student publication that self-identifies as a counterpoint to what it calls the "liberal orthodoxy" of the campus. In its mission to lampoon political correctness, the journal sparked a divisive argument by publishing an article ridiculing a gender-queer student in a way some say creates an unsafe environment for transsexual students.

Through a series of missteps, discussion of the article was thrust into the student group budget review process, where content is legally prohibited from affecting board members’ decision to fund a group.

Students in every part of the process say they are frustrated, and their complaints may signal serious changes in student control of the incidental fee as well as the grievance process at UO.

The incident
In late spring 2004, student and new senator Toby Hill-Meyer presented an autobiographical monologue as part of UO’s annual production "My Own Story." Hill-Meyer’s reflection described not fitting either a male or female designation and requested the use of nongendered pronouns during an interview with the Daily Emerald.

"We thought that was more than a little silly," Commentator Editor in Chief Tyler Graf said. "We didn’t make fun of his orientation but rather the politicizing of gender identity."

In the view of the Commentator staff, Graf said, left-wing agenda setting is business as usual. "This navel-gazing faux oppression is very predominant at the University of Oregon."

However, that point played out as a series of mock quotes in the Commentator’s September issue. In the column, statements attributed to Hill-Meyer announced that Hill-Meyer spent the summer being oppressed by Hill-Meyer’s penis; a female former ASUO president (labeled "man of the year" in the same issue) says she cut Hill-Meyer’s penis off, and Robocob, a recurring character in the column, brags about shooting a penis off.


Non-gendered pronouns

Gender-neutral pronouns have been developed to better accommodate people who may either feel restricted by the use of gendered pronouns, or who feel that they do not identify with either male or female genders.

The pronoun "ze" is used in place of "he" or "she"
The pronoun "hir" is used in place of "his" or her"

"It’s not the Commentator’s finest moment," Graf said.

Hill-Meyer has two problems with the column: Hill-Meyer says it outed Hill-Meyer specifically as transgender and implied violence toward trans people in general. Hill-Meyer said that despite the Daily Emerald’s story and photo in May, few co-workers were aware Hill-Meyer was gender-queer prior to the Commentator’s September column.

"They claim they didn’t out me because they only described my gender identity. Outing a trans person in the current climate of our society is much more dangerous. There are people who are willing to kill trans people everywhere," Hill-Meyer said. "Violence [against gender-queer people] happens all the time, considering what a small portion of the population we are. And what we have now is the subtle encouragement that what I am doing somehow merits violence."

Hill-Meyer said Hill-Meyer fears for Hill-Meyer’s own safety on campus, which influenced Hill-Meyer’s decision to resign from the senate. A friend overheard a death threat between two students last week, and since now everyone has access to Hill-Meyer’s name and picture, Hill-Meyer prefers to limit time spent on campus, "especially at night."

"Basically, if they said to my face what they wrote, they would have violated the student conduct code. But because they printed several thousand copies and posted it on the internet, they’re within the rules," Hill-Meyer said. "That’s so anti-intuitive to me. What they’ve done caused so much more harm than if they said it to my face."

Hill-Meyer took the matter up with administrators in September, including Vice President for Student Affairs Anne Leavitt, who advised Hill-Meyer to consult the Affirmative Action office. But Affirmative Action only deals with university employees, and the Commentator staff is unpaid. Hill-Meyer was then advised to talk to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs, which couldn’t engage the Commentator due to its focus on student-to-student mediation, Hill-Meyer said.


At Portland State
According to Shah Smith, editor of The Portland Spectator, the debacle over the Oregon Commentator is disappointing, but not surprising, "I think it reveals that they’re about tolerance until you disagree with them," Smith. "You know, living here, I’m almost used to it. It has lost its shock value to me."
Smith does not find it likely that a similar conflict would occur at PSU under the current student government climate but said that such an issue could possibly arise in the future.
"Anything is possible," Smith said. "Thankfully, we’ve had sensible people at the helm [at PSU], Democrats and Republicans alike."

"They all pointed me to the funding process as the only place I could go. I was sent to this office, that office, and they all said they couldn’t do anything. I didn’t really like that, but not doing anything was never an option."

Graf has informally invited Hill-Meyer to write the Commentator’s Another Perspective column, promising Hill-Meyer an unedited column in every issue.

"I can see how someone could find [what we printed] offensive," Graf said. "But it’s not hate speech. Do you really think it’s creating an unsafe environment?"

Graf said he’s exhausted from overseeing the journal and dealing with the popular conception that the PFC could de-fund the publication. "I’ve never been more frustrated with the campus. The court of public opinion and the court of law will prove them wrong," he said.

"One of the things we attack very strongly is political correctness," Graf said. "They’re making our job easy."

The process
The student fee allocation process at UO works much like at PSU. The Programs Finance Committee is comprised of seven students, elected or appointed, that review groups’ mission statements and budget requests. This year, one PFC seat is open.

When the PFC has decided on individual budget amounts, the combined amount of all groups’ budgets is submitted to the student senate and then to the administration for approval.

UO has $9 million of incidental fee money. More than $4.8 million will go to student groups. According to PFC member Jael Anker-Lagos, most student groups will see a 7 percent increase in next year’s budget.

Much of the controversy over the Commentator’s budget has arisen over the disputed legality of judging a publication’s content. Under the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Southworth, et al. v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, student fee committees like the PFC must parcel out funds in a viewpoint neutral process. The PFC may determine how much to give a group, but may not de-fund the group entirely due to content.

However, the governing document of UO student government (ASUO), the mysteriously named Green Tape Notebook, stipulates that the PFC may review and approve groups’ mission statements to see if a group is "culturally valuable." To de-fund any group requires a unanimous PFC vote, which is then subject to student senate and administration approval.

Using the allegations of harassment and hate speech, the PFC rejected the Commentator’s 21-year old mission statement in a December meeting. The Commentator was the only program to have its mission statement rejected. The mission statement must be approved before the magazine can receive any student fee funding.

This disagreement has created two camps in the PFC.

Several members, most notably Vice Chair Mason Quiroz, have actively campaigned against funding the Commentator, framing the debate as a moral issue of student fees paying for what they term hate speech.

Quiroz declined to be interviewed for this article.

"The truth is that the U.S. Constitution trumps the Green Tape Notebook," Anker-Lagos said. She had motioned to approve the mission statement but was overruled.

"The problem is that for a group to be de-funded, they have to preach a religion, lobby on issues other than education, or create a hostile environment," Anker-Lagos said. "That has to be determined by a lawyer. We really can’t say that at this point."

PFC Chair Persis Pohowalla said she was frustrated that her efforts to remind other PFC members to not review content didn’t help, and that they had come to the meeting with their minds made up.

"Everything that was said at the meeting [Feb. 1] was not germane to the budget hearing," she said.

Hate speech is a serious issue, said Stephanie Day, last year’s ASUO elections coordinator, but "PFC is neither judge nor jury to decide that."

Leavitt said the law clearly comes down in favor of the PFC minority opinion to approve the Commentator’s mission statement and fully fund the group, but said creating a discussion is appropriate at a budget hearing.

"The Southworth decision reminds us that funding allocation has to be done in a viewpoint neutral process," Leavitt said. "Hearings are a little like airings. It’s hard to be the chair in that situation because you have to allow dialogue and you also have to bring closure."

But she is clear that whatever students’ feelings about content should not affect the budget decision. "It’s pretty hard when you see students raising lots of issues that are important to them that really aren’t relevant to the task at hand," Leavitt said.

Three PFC members’ statements that they did not need to adhere to viewpoint neutrality in the Feb. 1 hearing led Commentator Publisher Dan Atkinson to file complaints with UO’s Constitution Court, the Daily Emerald reported. Quiroz, Eden Cortez and Dan Kieffer are suspended for at least 10 days pending the court’s findings.

Hill-Meyer said that without stepping out of viewpoint neutrality, there’s plenty to call the Commentator out on, especially for violating copyright law. "I knew that I couldn’t go there and say ‘I’m mad at the Commentator. Take away their funding.’ I knew I had to put together a case. As much as I think subjective feelings are important, I brought objective facts."

Free speech vs. social responsibility
Some students say they’re on all-too-familiar terms with the Southworth case, but feel invocation of the First Amendment misses the point.

"Freedom of speech is one thing, public safety is another," student Zachary Vishanoff said. "I’m one of these people that looks ahead and says, ‘How is this going to affect us down the road?’ I would hate for there to be a situation where people of mixed gender or transgender are threatened and then we review content."

In Vishanoff’s view, de-funding the Commentator doesn’t necessarily defy the first amendment. "It’s not about limiting free speech. If they’re going to use student fees, they need to be able to defend content," he said. "If they could privatize, get some grants from people who support them, fine. No one’s saying they can’t have a box on campus."

Damian Kemp, a writer for the Student Insurgent, the left-leaning UO publication, said he feels that the impact of the Commentator isn’t worth the risk to students who might be targeted. "There’s increasing evidence that the Oregon Commentator doesn’t benefit campus as much as their funding warrants," he said. "Most of [the Student Insurgent staff members] kind of feel like they’ve been pretty harmful to the campus in general, and don’t really mind seeing them get de-funded."

"Each group can consider itself a group of artists," Vishanoff said. "And if you’re the kind of artists that put goldfish in a blender to see if people push the button, that kind of art has ramifications."

While Hill-Meyer maintains that there are better ways to deal with the Commentator than de-funding, Hill-Meyer called for a closer look at how publications are governed.

"The concept that you cannot consider content is being applied in a really weird way. It essentially makes all the publications invulnerable. If there is no action that the publications could take that would merit de-funding, something’s wrong with that criteria."

"It is not an issue of viewpoint neutrality to look into repercussions."

Changes at UO
ASUO President Adam Petkun has come out multiple times against the PFC decision. "The whole idea of going to college is to learn," Petkun said in an ASUO press release. "You can’t learn if you’re restricting certain ideas just because they’re offensive or controversial."

University of Oregon OSPIRG member Kate Ridley said, "Our official standpoint is that the PFC should not have rejected the mission and goals of the Commentator. The Commentator has every right to be fully funded."

"I don’t think the administration is going to dismantle the PFC, but it might be remodeled," Graf said. "They are worried about bad publicity. If I were in Dave Frohnmayer’s shoes, I’d be a little worried."

Pohowalla feels the responsibility keenly. "They’ve scapegoated the PFC in my eyes. I feel it’s not fair for the PFC to have to deal with this."

"It’s a privilege to have students allocate the fee," Day said. "I think it’s great when students have control, but not when they abuse that power."

"What was most disappointing about [the Feb. 1 hearing]," Pohowalla said, "was to see student leaders step away from that neutrality. It poses the question ‘Can students govern themselves?’"


Commentator conflict timeline:

May 24, 2004
The Daily Emerald publishes an article on a presentation of various students’ autobiographical monologues, including Toby Hill-Meyer. In Hill-Meyer’s reflection, Hill-Meyer described not fitting either a male or female designation, and requested the use of non-gendered pronouns in an interview with the Daily Emerald.

September 2004
The Oregon Commentator publishes a fictive quote from Hill-Meyer that Hill-Meyer’s penis oppressed Hill-Meyer, followed by other campus notables (and Robocop) joking about cutting off Hill-Meyer’s penis.
Hill-Meyer privately consults the Office of Student Affairs.

November 2004
Student groups funded by incidental fees submit budgets to the Programs Finance Committee for initial review.

In a hearing, the PFC votes to reject the Commentator’s mission statement, which must be accepted before budget review begins. The committee later discusses voting to accept the mission statement at the Commentator’s Feb. 1 hearing.

Tuesday, Feb. 1
The Commentator gets a very public hearing, with noisy support for all sides. The PFC votes to reject the mission statement. At the end of the meeting, PFC Vice Chair Mason Quiroz announces his resignation.
Public Safety officers are on hand and break up a confrontation.

Wednesday, Feb. 2
Quiroz asks the committee to disregard his verbal resignation.

Friday, Feb. 4
Meyer-Hill resigns from the student senate, citing stress, and academic and safety concerns.

Monday, Feb. 7
The Constitution Court announces injunctions against PFC members Mason Quiroz, Eden Cortez and Dan Kieffer due to grievances filed by Commentator Publisher Dan Atkinson. Further hearings are halted for at least 10 days, as the PFC needs an additional member to reach quorum.

Wednesday, Feb. 9
Vice Provost Greg Vincent and Anne Leavitt, Vice President for Student Affairs, release a statement acknowledging the divisive debate.

Next week
Campus groups including the Women’s Center, Survivors’ Center, Multicultural Center, LBGTQA and the Bias Response Team will sponsor a forum to raise community awareness of diversity on campus and address issues of campus climate tolerance.