Higher Education

Patrick B. McGuigan | February 13, 2018

Free-speech controversy continues at UCO

Patrick B. McGuigan

The visit by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (AiG) to the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) in Edmond was scrubbed last week. UCO is now the Sooner State’s third largest higher education facility, so the move got attention.

Administrators say they did not cancel the engagement, scheduled for March 5, and the student body president who formally pulled the plug on Ham’s talk, Stockton Duvall, did not cast stones at school officials. However, Duvall said he was “attacked” and “intimidated” for having made the invitation to Ham (initially on behalf of a student group), and that the process had undermined stated objectives to support “the free exchange of different ideas and perspectives.”

Writing for the The Gayly, an Oklahoma City-based paper with readers across the southern United States, Jordan Redman wrote a story (“UCO student group successful in keeping anti-LGBT speaker off campus”) concerning on-campus organizational efforts to kill the Ham visit over the last several weeks.

Redman reported that Lindsey Churchill, an associate professor of history and the director of the Women’s Research Center and BGLTQ+ Student Center, said one of the students’ concerns was transparency. “The students didn’t want Ham to come to campus (or at least allow him to have a debate) in part because he has never been to a public university as far as we know.”

Churchill was also quoted as saying, “We didn’t want someone who is not ‘research’ based and also says discriminatory things about the lgbtq community to come on campus without UCO students knowing that their student fees went to this or at least provides a counter point to debate him.”

Statements from several sources, including campus administrators, have not dampened controversy about the dis-invite.

University of Central Oklahoma President Don Betz, last week, sought to stemthen-growing anger over the decision. In formal statement, he said in part: "As a public institution whose campus is public property, our doors are open to any who wish to express their ideas so long as student and public safety is preserved.

"While any reports of bullying will be and are being investigated, it is important to state that reports that the LGBTQ community prevented Mr. Ham from being invited to campus are inaccurate and unfair to members of our campus community.”

Rachel Watson, president of the Student Alliance for Equality, an LGBTQ group at UCO, released a statement saying “we reject bullying and intimidation in all of its forms as contrary to the core values of our institution, and we conscientiously avoid bullying tactics and behaviors in our interactions with one another and the communities we serve.”

Duvall, the student body president who decided to call off the visit, posted at the University website and on his Facebook page an open letter to students. He wrote:

“I want to be very clear on this, there have been members of our campus who have tried to bully me in making my decision. While none of these examples have involved any members of administration, there is definitely something that must be done to address this issue. I am not the first person to be personally attacked by a very vocal group on campus that has little tolerance for opposing viewpoints. The culture of allowing this group to bully both individual students and organizations on our campus ends now. I will not allow any more intimidation to be directed toward our campus community from this point forward. In the near future, I will be working with administration to ensure that all of our students are protected from any bullying or intimidation tactics so we can move forward with supporting the free exchange of different ideas and perspectives.”

Over the weekend, Ham posted an update at the AiG website, saying his group has two signed contracts, “one that we composed using our usual template and one from the UCO called a Guest Speaker Contract. Both were signed by a school VP, and the UCO version even has the university seal on the contract.”

A December 4 contract from AiG was returned to the organization with the signatures of Duvall and Vice President of Student Affairs Myron Pope, while a January 18 document bore the signature of Drew Duke, an assistant vice president for administrative affairs. The latter contract had the imprimatur (dated Jan. 11) of Brad Morelli, legal counsel for UCO.

Andrew Spiropoulos, a law professor at Oklahoma City University, was critical of the outcome. [Disclosure: Spiropoulos is also a distinguished fellow at OCPA.] “This incident is just the latest example of the spreading plague of political censorship on college campuses,” he said in an exchange with this reporter.

“Invited speakers or even faculty who promise to flout the reigning orthodoxies of political correctness often face organized groups of students and faculty who demand the silencing of this expression. Weak-kneed university administrators, fearing that students offended by ideas they don’t want to hear will file grievances or foment disorder, increasingly give in to these demands and pressure the sponsors of events to avoid or even disinvite controversial speakers.

“The problem, of course, is that confronting offensive ideas isn’t just a part of a university education, it’s the essence of it. Fortunately, a few schools like the University of Chicago and Purdue University have implemented strong protections of academic freedom. But the problem has become so serious that both Congress and several state legislatures are considering requiring universities to protect academic freedom.”

State Rep. Mike Osburn (R-Edmond) and state Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) were contacted by telephone late Friday afternoon and asked for comments. On Sunday, Pugh also received calls to his cellphone and via text, asking for a response.

Neither lawmaker responded to request for comment.

Three Republican legislators who did comment issued a joint press release Friday evening, sending it to many journalists, including this reporter.

“Bullying and intimidating people to squelch free speech are disgraceful anywhere—but even more so on our college campuses,” said state Rep. Kevin Calvey (R-Okla. City). “Higher Education’s censorship and bigotry against Christians shows an appalling lack of accountability on how Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities spend our tax dollars. We fund education to teach and promote American values. Censorship is not an American value.”

“Those claiming to advocate for tolerance are often, and ironically, the most intolerant of all,” said state Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate).

“The overwhelmingly Christian and conservative people of Oklahoma should not be forced to pay more taxes to subsidize censorship and bigotry against Christians and conservatives at our state colleges,” added state Rep. Chuck Strohm (R-Jenks).

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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