Controversy over dis-invite to contracted UCO speaker continues
Published: February 13th, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – 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 did not cast stones at school officials.
However, he 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.”
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 stem then-growing anger over the decision (http://newsok.com/uco-president-issues-statement-concerning-cancellation-of-speakers-visit/article/5582771?articleBar=1). In a 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. A variety of groups representing a full spectrum of ideas and opinions regularly come to our campus and speak freely, and we have public spaces for them to do so. That includes demonstrators that support a variety of sometimes controversial positions.
“Our campus community is composed of many people and organizations that offer various viewpoints on many topics. A diverse group of students posed questions about the decision to invite Mr. Ham to campus. 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.”
Later, UCO’s vice president of communications, Charles Johnson, stressed the spike came at the student government level and not from the administration.
Stockton Duvall, the student body president who decided to call off the visit, was nonetheless unhappy about the outcome. He posted at the University website and on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/stockton.duvall) 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.” (https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2018/02/09/uco-cancellation-story-grows/)
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.
For the The Gayly, an Oklahoma City-based paper with readers across the Southern United States, Jordan Redman wrote a story concerning on-campus organizational efforts to kill the Ham visit.
Redman reported that Lindsey Churchill, Associate Professor of History and Director, Women’s Research Center and BGLTQ+ Student Center, said:
“It was actually very spontaneous. The students found out about Ken Ham’s visit during a staff meeting and wanted to go and talk with their student body president. They went to Stockton’s office but he wasn’t there. He then offered to come to the Center. We had a 30 minute conversation where students expressed their dismay and also reminded Stockton of his promise to support women and the LGBTQ+ community on campus.”
Churchill continued, “Students were also concerned about 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. They are also upset because of how this story has been spun. There are many members of the group that are Christian and it’s been portrayed as a Christian versus lgbt issue.”
Some members of the group were apparently upset both at Ham’s views on creation and also his past online posts affirming traditional marriage. Ham said in recent posts he planned to talk about his views on creation, but would not rebuff questions about traditional marriage.
Redman, the Gayly reporter, quoted Prof. Churchill saying, “We don’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.”
James Davenport, political science professor at another tax-financed institution (Rose State College in Midwest City) told CapitolBeatOK, “I think the trend of attempting to prevent those we disagree with from voicing their opinions in public is a dangerous one. The idea that an institution of higher education can be intimidated into withdrawing an invitation to a speaker because that speaker is controversial calls that institution’s commitment to a truly liberal education into question.”
Also critical of the outcome was Professor Andrew Spiropoulos, a law professor at Oklahoma City University, an institution rooted in the Methodist tradition. Spiropoulos said, in an exchange with this writer, “This incident is just the latest example of the spreading plague of political censorship on college campuses. 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 dis-invite 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 last week and asked for comments. On Sunday, Pugh also received calls to his cellphone and via text, asking for a response.
Each was told the story would be written over the weekend, but neither responded.
Three Republicans 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 Rep. Kevin Calvey. An attorney, the Oklahoma City Republican continued, “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 Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate. Brecheen said bullying by “anti-Christian censors” must stop.
Rep. Chuck Strohm from Jenks, also a Republican, said, “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.”
In their release, the trio promised to “review the Regents for Higher Education’s accountability for their use of taxpayer dollars, and advocated for appropriate safeguards to be enacted to avoid intolerance like that at UCO in the future.”
Lynn Green, a retired educator in the Oklahoma City public school system, replied to a request for comment posted on this writer’s Facebook page, saying, “I think that disinviting Hamm is the wrong strategy. Hamm gets to claim martyrdom. Better to invite and refute.”
Another passionate liberal reader, also encouraged to respond, commented, “[Y]young people need to hear from those they have nothing in common with. Only listening to those who share your view point is damaging American society. Whether it’s MSNBC or Fox echo chambers and the idea of selective information is a foul way to run a news business.”
That writer, Carl Owen, continued, “I can disagree with a number of conservative positions because I’ve read them, studied them and debated them with Conservatives. And on occasion it changes or modifies my positions on issues.”
After an exchange with another reader, Owen apologized for a few harsh words aimed at Ham. He then reflected, “I’m sure he firmly believes everything he says. But I completely disagree with his scriptural approach to sexual orientation and creation. I’m 62 and I walked down the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Choctaw to accept Jesus Christ as my savior at 12. In the last half century I’ve tried to follow the simple, beautiful, direct edict of Jesus Christ as outlined in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
“I firmly believe that man’s science including the Theory of Evolution are Divinely inspired. I also firmly believe in the Constitution of the United States and peoples right to live with or without religion, any religion. I spent 20 years wearing an Army uniform doing my mediocre best to make sure that those rights exist. And I believe it’s in the students best interest that Ken Hamm be allowed to speak so they can hear his words from his mouth.”
According to The Oklahoman (http://newsok.com/student-alliance-for-equality-group-at-uco-issues-statement-regarding-ken-ham/article/5583209), Rachel Watson of the Student Alliance for Equality (SAFE) released a weekend statement saying that its members were not part of discussions about the Ham speech of the dis-invite.
She was quoted saying, on behalf of the group that advocates for LGBT rights, “Freedom of expression includes the right of speakers to express opinions that may differ from others in the community, as well as the right of the community members to challenge those positions. Any individual affected by a governing body’s decision should have the right to ask probing questions in the course of frank, open, and civil discussion, and to seek thoughtful explanations of decisions, including those regarding the allocation of our student body’s shared resources.”
Watson also said, “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.”
NOTE: This report is expanded from a news story that first appeared on the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs website (http://www.ocpathink.org/article/free-speech-controversy-continues-at-uco). McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, and publisher of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper based in Oklahoma City.