EUGENE, Ore., November 19, 2015—Last night, the University of Oregon’s student government denied funding to a student group’s poker night event for a second time amid concerns the event’s pro-gun message and prizes “would make students feel uncomfortable.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to the University of Oregon (UO) before the Associated Students of the University of Oregon’s (ASUO’s) vote yesterday. FIRE explained that ASUO’s refusal to fund a poker night hosted by UO’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) expressly because it disagrees with the event’s message amounts to constitutionally prohibited viewpoint discrimination. FIRE urged the university administration to step in to protect its students’ First Amendment rights.
“ASUO’s budget is subsidized by mandatory fees paid by students,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Ari Cohn. “As a result, ASUO must distribute its funds in a viewpoint-neutral manner. ASUO has clearly failed to adhere to this obligation. Since ASUO is an agent of a public university, the University of Oregon administration is legally and morally required to intervene to rectify the First Amendment violations perpetrated by ASUO.”
Last night’s vote was the second time ASUO turned down YAL’s request for $950 in funding to cover the cost of pizza and rental fees for its November 20 “Liberty Poker Night.” YAL insisted no ASUO money would go toward covering the controversial prizes awarded to the winners, including three firearms donated by local gun dealers, which YAL says would be transferred to the winners after the event, off-campus, and in accordance with state and federal law. YAL successfully held a similar event in January 2015.
At ASUO’s November 11 meeting, ASUO senators and ASUO President Helena Schlegel openly voiced concerns about funding an event with a pro-gun message. ASUO members said the event might make students feel “unsafe,” despite repeated assurances from YAL that no firearms would be present on campus at any time.
Despite reminders from both YAL and ASUO Senator Abel Cerros that the group was entitled to a viewpoint-neutral decision on its funding request, ASUO repeatedly questioned YAL members about the group’s stance on campus firearms policies. Ultimately, the funding proposal was denied, with several senators expressing that their votes against the proposal were based on discomfort with the event.
“It is extremely upsetting that so many at the University of Oregon don’t understand the importance of free expression and the importance of maintaining a marketplace of ideas,” said Oregon YAL Co-President Thomas Tullis. “I’m discouraged to see that my fellow students are trying to silence this event due to their vocalized desire to ensure that campus is a safe and comfortable environment. Students should be confronted with opposing ideas and beliefs on campus. They should be challenged. This is how learning takes place.”
YAL resubmitted its proposal to ASUO last night. This time, ASUO again denied funding but said the denial was due in part to the fact that an anonymous donor had agreed to fund the YAL event until ASUO funding had been secured. YAL countered that the donor provided a loan that needed to be repaid.
ASUO’s initial denial of funding was not the first time YAL’s event ran into trouble on campus. On November 10, Director of Marketing and Communications for University Housing Leah Andrews told YAL in an email that their event posters would not be approved for posting in residence halls because they endorsed guns. “University Housing doesn’t allow for advertising in the residence halls that encourages anything that is prohibited in our code of conduct,” wrote Andrews. “Possession of firearms is not allowed in the residence halls, since the prizes for the tournament are a hand gun [sic] and a rifle the posters will not be approved for display in the residence halls.”
FIRE again calls on UO to assure all students that expressive activity on campus will not be subject to viewpoint-based discrimination, either by university administrators or by ASUO in executing its delegated authority to distribute student activity fees.
“University of Oregon student senators and administrators have embraced the pernicious idea that students have a right to be protected from encountering ideas with which they disagree,” said Cohn. “This is an argument that our national commitment to freedom of expression utterly rejects and that the University of Oregon administration must too reject moving forward.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org