Fueling the Fire

November 25, 2015

By Staff at The Register-Guard

When the Young Americans for Liberty decided to hold a poker night at the University of Oregon last Friday, with guns as prizes, their goal was clear: Create a controversy, generate publicity and get opponents and supporters stirred up.

The local chapter of YAL — part of a Libertarian nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. — received permission to use the student union for the event. But the student government declined to pay for pizza or the rental fee, not the first time it has declined a funding request.

Student senators discussed a variety of concerns, including discomfort with a gun giveaway, ageism, the impact of a poker night on people with a gambling addiction, and whether or not it was an educational event. In the end, the student senate twice voted against YAL’s request for funding, noting the second time that the group had obtained outside funding.

Thomas Tullis, president of YAL’s UO chapter, cried foul and turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for support. Philadelphia-based FIRE promptly accused the UO of violating students’ First Amendment rights and sent out a press release headlined, “Oregon’s Student Government Discriminates Against Student Group Hosting Pro-Gun Rights Poker Tournament.”

FIRE said the student government had violated its obligation to distribute funds in a viewpoint-neutral manner and that UO’s housing director also had discriminated against YAL by refusing to allow it to post advertisements for the event in residence halls.

Tullis told the student government when he requested $950 for rent and refreshments that the event’s goal was to promote discussion about gun policies and challenge people’s ways of thinking. When a student senator asked Tullis if he believed the attractiveness of the event was that it was polarizing, Tullis said yes.

Promotional materials for the event included a photo of a Sig Sauer handgun with the words “WIN THIS GUN.” Free food and prizes were promised, but the only prizes mentioned or pictured were a handgun and a rifle and scope.

The poker night — also billed as a protest against the ban on guns on campus — was held as scheduled, with the help of a loan from an anonymous donor, organizers said. About 65 students and community members attended, they said.

The UO administration wisely stayed out of the fray, other than to say the student government’s denial of funding appeared to be “content neutral” as required and the housing director’s decision was consistent with UO policies.

As word of the event spread, predictable battle lines were drawn with, at times, some predictable name-calling. One student said he didn’t expect anyone to change their views as a result of the back and forthing.

So, in the end, who benefitted from all this?

YAL, which is a spinoff of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, is a young organization with a very small budget. In 2014, it had revenues of $248,351; its affiliated foundation had revenues of $1.88 million, about double the prior year but still small by nonprofit standards

FIRE, founded in 1999, reported revenues of $3.1 million last year, up about 70 percent from the previous year. But it also reported that expenses outstripped revenues by about $200,000.

Both organizations depend on donations and grants.

By picking a fight with the UO, they were able to generate media coverage — stories were carried by Oregon media, The Associated Press, and some websites sympathetic to YAL or opposed to gun control in general. YAL also received promises of support, financial or otherwise, from individuals, some of whom believed UO had banned the event.

As for starting a dialog about gun issues there was, with few exceptions, little evidence of open discussion occurring between people with open minds as a result of YAL’s actions. Nor, given the location and the predictably inflammatory nature of the event, was there much indication that this was the organization’s goal.

People of good will disagree on the causes of gun violence and its solutions. Finding those solutions will not come from deepening divisions and fueling fears. It will come from finding common ground.

The UO’s student government and administration made the search for common ground easier by refusing to be drawn into a fight. Both acknowledged YAL’s right to promote its views — leaving the group with little to complain about except not getting free pizza.

Schools: University of Oregon Cases: University of Oregon: Student Government Denies Group’s Funding Over Pro-Gun Rights Views