Freedom of the Press at Oregon
March 3, 2005
FIRE’s latest press release involves the University of Oregon student government’s long-delayed recognition of a conservative student publication. A number of members of the committee that determines funding allocations had objected to approving the Oregon Commentator’s mission statement (approval of this statement is needed for funding) because of the publication’s mockery of a transgendered student senator (for instance, the Commentator made fun of this senator because the senator asked that people use the pronouns “ze” instead of “he” or “she” and “hir” instead of “him” or “her” when referring to the senator). While mockery certainly is unpleasant, particularly for the person being mocked, it’s not unlawful. It is unlawful, however, for student government agencies at state universities to refuse to fund an organization because of its viewpoint (see Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth).
Unfortunately, when FIRE wrote University of Oregon President Frohnmayer to ask him to set the students straight, he refused to do so, claiming that he believed that they would eventually come to a viewpoint-neutral decision. President Frohnmayer, who says he was a constitutional law professor, should know better—any denial of constitutional rights is an irreparable harm and opens up the university to legal liability. For instance, if you want to hold a protest against abortion in a park and are told that no anti-abortion protests will be allowed, the harm has already been done. If the authorities later relent and allow you to have your protest a few weeks later, this does not mean that they can no longer be sued for their first denial. Government agencies (and those who work on their behalf, such as student governments at state universities) do not get one free pass to censor. President Frohnmayer undoubtedly knows this, and it’s a shame that he didn’t share it with his students. We are only left to guess at his true motivations for inaction.