The Lane Community College Council’s Bristow Square Task Force hosted an open forum on Feb. 7 to receive student and faculty input about the college’s handling of last fall’s anti-abortion display.
Over two dozen students and faculty packed into a meeting room in the Center for Meeting and Learning to voice concerns about the college’s handling of the display. While many attendees at the forum sought to restrict when and where controversial content could be displayed on campus, several students and faculty held reservations about violating First Amendment speech protections.
A unifying concern among the student and faculty voices at the Feb. 7 forum was the lack of warning from the college about the display. Many students had no advance warning, save for an orange sign that read “Caution: Genocide Photos Ahead” on the main approaches to Bristow Square. College administrators made a post on the MyLane website about the event, but most students did not receive any notice.
Among those voices was LCC President Margaret Hamilton, who expressed dismay over the college’s poor communication.
“I was appalled. I had never seen anything like that before,” Hamilton said in her opening remarks. “I didn’t even know about it! No one had communicated with me.”
On the mornings of Oct. 9 and 10, 2017, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-abortion group notorious for their graphic displays on college campuses nationwide, set up their Genocide Awareness Project display in Bristow Square. The display likened the practice of abortion to genocide, depicting photos of aborted fetuses alongside photos of Holocaust victims and lynchings. Within hours, the display was the talk of the campus.
On Oct. 10, students organized a protest in response to the display, surrounding the 8-foot-tall banners with posters and bedsheets to cover up the graphic images. The following days saw dozens of students bringing feelings of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder to counselors on campus.
One of those students, Trisha King, shared her own experience during the forum.
“For someone with PTSD, it was a hard thing to just ignore,” King said, to nods and murmurs of agreement.
Brett Rowlett, the director of Public Affairs at the college, explained that a last-minute date change was largely to blame for the lack of advance notice.
“Originally, they were supposed to arrive on Wednesday or Thursday of that week,” Rowlett said during the forum. “We didn’t know until the last minute that they had changed to Monday and Tuesday.”
Though almost everyone at the forum agreed that the display was graphic and unsettling, several students and faculty defended the right to freedom of expression in public spaces. Judah Aptecker, a Lane student and member of the Oregon Student Association, noted that controversial displays can have some merit.
“People have conflicting views, and some people don’t like seeing conflicting views, especially on a very liberal campus,” Aptecker said. “I think bringing in other views, even if they bring up emotions in the students at first, the overall value is very good.”
Chris Rehn, who works in campus administration, noted the group’s constitutional right to demonstrate in public spaces.
“You cannot restrict content,” Rehn said. “Hate speech is protected speech under the First Amendment … you’re going to run into real problems if you try to put [in] any kind of content restrictions.”
Others cited the student demonstrations on Oct. 10 as a great example of community organizing.
“I thought, personally, what happened on day two of the exhibit being on campus is what a college is all about,” Rowlett said. “Students came and let their side, their voices, their ideas be heard.”
Students and faculty suggested many fixes to the college’s policies regarding outside groups demonstrating on campus, including specific free speech locations away from the center of campus, an improved notification system for potentially graphic exhibits, limitations on the size and scope of graphic exhibits and using controversial displays as educational materials in classrooms.
The Bristow Square Task Force continues to seek suggestions from students and faculty as they compile a list of recommended policy and procedure changes. There is no set date for the release of the recommendations.