Commentator’s mission denied, again

February 2, 2005

The Programs Finance Committee rejected the Oregon Commentator’s mission statement again Tuesday night in a fierce budget hearing that ended with PFC member Mason Quiroz announcing his resignation.

“I just want to publicly state that I don’t support this part of the branch of student government anymore,” Quiroz said in the final moments of the hearing. “I think it’s obvious that our money is going to hateful speech … I don’t care, I don’t care. Kick me out. I resign from my position right now. You guys are sleeping with the devil.”

About 110 people crowded into the EMU Gumwood Room to attend the controversial and dramatic meeting, which was marred by complications. The hearing’s venue had to be changed twice because the original Rogue Room was too small to hold all the people who showed up. Unlike any other PFC meeting, public safety officials were on hand to mitigate potential problems.

In a battle that pitted the First Amendment against whether it was appropriate to publish materials some consider offensive, PFC members could not agree on whether they had the power or right to sanction groups that some members feel are not culturally advantageous to students.

The sparks of contention were first ignited last December when Quiroz asked the committee to reject the conservative opinion journal’s mission statement. Quiroz said he made his decision after ASUO senator Toby Hill-Meyer approached him to complain that statements published in the Commentator made Hill-Meyer feel unsafe. Hill-Meyer, who later filed a formal grievance against the publication, said Hill-Meyer was targeted because of transgender identity.

Although PFC members said before the meeting they would recall that decision, giving the impression that the mission statement might be passed, no approval came at Tuesday’s meeting. Instead the PFC engaged in more than an hour of deadlocked discussion on everything from PFC’s role to the legal implications of choosing to de-fund the Commentator.

PFC Chair Persis Pohowalla stressed that PFC members needed to stay viewpoint-neutral, and their main goal was to review the Commentator’s budget, not its content. “Even though we fund groups, that does not mean we support them,” Pohowalla said. “We just fund them.” But Quiroz did not agree, saying that the PFC is responsible for looking at how student fee-funded groups affect other students on campus. Quoting from the ASUO’s Green Tape Notebook, Quiroz said, “each program … must submit a goal statement which allows each Finance Committee to determine for itself whether the program or activity meets the statutory standard of ORS 351.070(3)(d), which authorizes the (Oregon State Board of Higher Education) to collect fees to fund programs for the cultural and physical development of students.”

“That’s what the rules say, we do have the power, you cannot deny this,” Quiroz said. In Quiroz’s view, the Commentator is not promoting that development.

“I’m in no way trying to silence the voice of the Oregon Commentator,” Quiroz said. “We have a duty to protect those who are threatened by groups that are funded by incidental fees. What message are we sending to those who turn to us when all others have turned against them?”

Hill-Meyer said during the hearing that after consultation with administration on campus, coming to the PFC seemed like the only viable solution.

“Some might argue on an ideological level that to remove funding of a publication on the basis of its content is a form of censorship,” Hill-Meyer said, reading from a statement. “But you must also remember that to provide funds to a publication is a form of sponsorship, and to provide funds to a publication that prints hate and justifies violence is a sponsorship of hate and violence.”

But Commentator Editor in Chief Tyler Graf reiterated that comments made about Hill-Meyer were supposed to be satirical.

Tempers flared, and there was booing and cheering as attendees traded remarks. Pohowalla was hard-pressed to keep order, forcefully banging her gavel several times and limiting each speaker’s time to about two minutes.

PFC member Jael Anker-Lagos, who also called for viewpoint neutrality, tried twice to get a motion to approve the budget on the table with no support from the other members.

“I really do think that PFC should remember why you were elected,” Pohowalla said. “I’m trying to do the best job that I can do.”

ASUO President Adam Petkun reminded the PFC that the Commentator had not been found guilty of breaking any rules, citing the Southworth Supreme court decision that states that universities must conduct a viewpoint-neutral allocation process.

“This isn’t a court of law,” Petkun said. “I don’t think we can say that (the Commentator’s) mission isn’t important to the mission of the University.”

But a motion to approve the mission statement failed 2-4-0, with only Pohowalla and Anker-Lagos voting in support of it.

Graf said the PFC had overstepped its boundaries and that the Commentator had done nothing wrong.

“I think it’s going to set a very negative precedent,” Graf said. “The PFC is making a subjective statement about our content.”

Others called into question Hill-Meyer’s decision to use the PFC as a means to address the Commentator’s content.

“Toby what you’ve done tonight, it’s blatantly illegal,” Adrian Gilmore, last year’s PFC chair and Commentator contributor said. “There’s a reason why free speech is the First Amendment.”

Commentator publisher Dan Atkinson agreed.

“If we have violated a rule, take it up with judicial affairs,” Atkinson said.

But some PFC members were adamant.

“If I’m disobeying an unjust law, then I feel justified in doing so, and the executive can fire me for doing it,” PFC Member Dan Kieffer said, adding later that he wanted to make decision “he could live and die with.”

“So you’re saying the First Amendment is an unjust law,” Graf countered. “Are you insane?” Graf said it was not the job of a “bunch of undergraduates” to determine what constituted hate speech, and that the Commentator did not habitually have content that intentionally put people in danger.

“Whose job is it to define hate? Is it your job?” he asked. “The precedent is against you. State law is against you.”

Students on both sides of the debate also joined in the fray.

“As a student who pays incidental fees, I refuse to allow my fees to promote hate and incite violence,” senior Stacy Borke said, eliciting a round of applause.

But there was still no agreement.

“You have forsaken free speech by closing down a publication,” junior Matt Haulk said, and his share of cheering followed. “You have betrayed your position of power.”

With one minute to spare and no progress in the decision-making, Quiroz quit and Pohowalla was forced to adjourn the meeting till a later date.

After the meeting, Graf said the Commentator is planning to take legal action.

“I think tonight has been one of the worst nights in student government history,” Graf said.

He added that he did not think Quiroz was qualified for his position on the budget committee.

“He obviously had a bone to pick with us,” Graf said. “I’m glad he’s gone.” Atkinson echoed these sentiments.

“We have one less incompetent government official to worry about,” Atkinson said.

After resigning Quiroz declined to comment.

Pohowalla had no comments about Quiroz’s resignation.

Petkun said he was “surprised and a little disappointed.”

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Schools: University of Oregon Cases: University of Oregon: Derecognition of Student Group for ‘Offensive’ Publication