During the past few weeks, Portland State’s College Republicans student group has found itself at the center of a proverbial storm, freshly igniting time-tested debates about free speech at the university.
In late May, the group sponsored two separate events that caused a stir: a talk by activist Nonie Darwish, who has been widely described as a vocal critic of Islam, and a screening of the documentary Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.
Several students at the events charged the film and speaker with promoting racist rhetoric. A video of the confrontation after the film screening has received significant online media attention, stacking up nearly 20,000 views on YouTube as of Thursday.
“Both events made a huge distinction between the majority of Muslims and the radical strain,” said Julia Rabadi, president of the College Republicans. “[Darwish] said this isn’t about [Muslim] people, this is about an ideology.”
Members of the Muslim Student Association, among others, spoke out against the events.
“Islam is about mercy, peace, love, compassion. These words are the very opposite of what Nonie Darwish preaches and teaches others,” said member Sadaf Assadi.
Tensions ran high in both groups. Some Muslim students were worried that the events could incite violence and were concerned for their own safety on campus. A few weeks before the event, one Muslim student was assaulted in Smith Memorial Student Union and her hijab was pulled off, according to several students.
“We met with many of the people who were upset to let them know that we cannot stop an event because they find the content hurtful,” said Aimee Shattuck, director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs. Shattuck explained that Supreme Court cases have set a precedent that the First Amendment applies to student organizations.
At the same time, the College Republicans said they felt unsafe at their own event. Group members described a climate on campus that was hostile to their viewpoints.
“This campus is not tolerant of free speech if you disagree with the majority,” Rabadi said.
Free speech claimed by both sides
Some individuals were asked by Campus Public Safety Office officers to leave the events, raising questions about the parameters of free speech and the principles behind public spaces.
“The First Amendment is a very complex issue,” said Phil Zerzan, CPSO chief. “It’s a balancing act.”
“We encourage people to have civil discourse, to talk about controversial issues,” Zerzan said. He explained that CPSO was within its rights to make a call on whether safety was being disrupted.
“This is a university, so we have control over the time, place and manner in which that happens.”
While a number of students in the MSA agreed that the events were protected by the First Amendment, they spoke out against the tone of the messages presented.
“The message that Ms. Darwish conveyed to students was that Islam is violent and if people do not leave Islam, then they don’t belong in this country,” said Aaron Morrison, vice president of the MSA.
Rabadi disagreed, saying that Darwish’s talk targeted extremists.
“The only way you would be offended by either the Nonie Darwish or the Obsession event is if you are a radical yourself,” Rabadi said. “If they are against the radicals, if they are against the hate, if they are against the horrible abuse of human rights, then we’re on the same side.”
Some students called the College Republicans out for not wanting to engage in dialogue because the group did not schedule a question-and-answer session after the film screening. Rabadi explained that was standard practice for most of the group’s film screenings.
While group leadership left after the film, others stayed behind for informal discussion.
“There’s no proof that we don’t want to talk. Before each event, we always send an email to the opposing group,” said Rabadi, who provided the Vanguard with emails to various student groups. “We emailed the MSA asking if they wanted to do a debate. They chose not to respond.”
Morrison said he was not aware of attempts to contact the group, but would welcome dialogue.
“I believe it would have been good to have a discussion with the College Republicans after the film. [They] may have been able to clear up issues with the film that many students had,” Morrison said.
Emotions highly charged
According to Rabadi, the College Republicans have been harassed on campus for years. Small but active, the vocal group receives a lot of backlash, group members said.
“Ideologically, we are the minority,” said Renee Lang, a member of the group.
Rabadi said she wakes up an hour early every morning to put up meeting and event posters. Hours later, most of the fliers are ripped and defaced, she added.
In the weeks leading up to the two events, this escalated to another level. Throughout May, an anonymous protestor ripped down College Republican posters and replaced them with fliers that read: “Stop being racist, sexist, douchebags.”
Many in the group lamented those labels as misconceptions they face on a regular basis.
“We walked into our meeting to these posters. It’s intimidation,” said group member Gretchen Holman.
Working with officials on campus, the group caught a student on ripping down posters on camera. Conduct and Community Standards is currently investigating the matter; defacing posters is a punishable offense at PSU, Rabadi said.
“At this point, all of our issues are being addressed in some manner. We just don’t know in exactly which way,” she said.
Some Muslim students felt the administration had not done enough to address their concerns.
“Free speech is one thing, but hate speech is a completely different matter,” Assadi said. “There are extremists in every faith, but they are not representatives of the religion. Extremists are given this title for a reason.”
Assadi questioned the premise behind the events.
“What in the world is the relationship between a group called College Republicans and events about Islam?” Assadi wondered.
“Our way of life encompasses individual freedoms and liberties,” Rabadi said. “A radical sect wants to implement an unjust system. We have to talk about it,” she said, explaining why the group held the two events.
“As a Christian, I understand that any discussion of how a religion can be used by evil people is a sensitive subject,” said Jeremiah Scott, a College Republicans group member.
Both events were held in the Multicultural Center, leading some on campus to question whether the event adhered to the mission of the space.
“We are not a private space that can deny use of space,” said Cynthia Gomez, director of Cultural Centers. “We have a reservation policy open to all.”
In response to the events, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Jackie Balzer sent a letter to student groups outlining the university’s commitment to protecting free speech. She encouraged opposing groups to handle conflict with civility.
“There is always something to learn for next time,” Shattuck said. “But I don’t think that conflict can be avoided entirely, especially when people want to discuss such emotionally charged topics.”
VIDEO OF EVENTS FROM YOUTUBE
READ A COPY OF THE EMAIL LETTER FROM PRESIDENT WIM WIEWEL TO THE STUDENT BODY BELOW
In recent days, events organized by a student group have triggered vigorous reactions from other students, and I view this campus tension as an opportunity to clarify our rights and responsibilities as members of the Portland State community.
One of PSUs student-sponsored campus organizations held separate events in late May featuring a speaker and a film on jihadist threats. These events drew protests that the content was inflammatory and discriminatory against Muslims. The debate has intensified in recent days over the limits of free speech and how the university should respond to speech that is offensive to some members of our campus community.
Portland State University respects and supports your right to express your political and social views. Free speech — even when it is offensive — is protected by the First Amendment. In fact, valuing a robust debate of ideas is the underpinning of a liberal arts education at a public university. The best response to speech that is offensive is not to stifle the speaker but to answer with counter speech and dialogue. At the same time, we also are responsible for keeping our campus community safe from fear and intimidation, and we ask that you express views in a way that respects others. Free speech imparts both rights and responsibilities on us all.
All student organizations are required to follow the policies and procedures of the Student Activities and Leadership Program in order to receive student funding. In addition, PSUs Student Code of Conduct prohibits harassment, vandalism, inciting violence and similar misconduct. University staff members work hard to ensure that these rules are followed by those organizing and participating in all campus events. Even if you disagree with the content of these events, organizers have a right to sponsor them — and others have a right to protest these events as long as all involved adhere to PSUs policies.
Portland State is a diverse community representing cultures, religions and political views from across the globe. What brings us together is our commitment to providing educational opportunities for all students. To do that, we must be mindful of both our rights and our civility.
We also have a duty to maintain a safe environment and culture of respect, and I encourage students to contact the Dean of Student Life and encourage faculty and staff to contact the Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion if you feel unsafe or unwelcome at PSU.
President Wim Wiewel