Speeches and Writings
"Offensive Material in a Student Publication"
Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon
A student publication, The Insurgent, recently published content of an offensive nature in their publication. We have received numerous inquiries about the publication and the offensive content. Below is the President's most recent response to these inquiries and a copy of the letter to the editor the President submitted on April 12, to the daily student newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald.
By now you may be aware of controversy surrounding The Insurgent, an occasional publication produced by a small number of students. The Insurgent published an extremely offensive and distasteful issue with cartoons mocking deeply held religious beliefs. I was appalled when I saw it and said so in a letter published in early April in the Oregon Daily Emerald, a student-run publication which also had immediately denounced the cartoons. I expressed again our collective rejection of The Insurgent's excesses in remarks to the University Senate earlier this week calling it "outrageous" and "inexcusable."
Over the past dozen years, and most recently this month at the annual meeting of the Oregon Community Foundation, I have called repeatedly for civil discourse and I have condemned incendiary, offensive and hurtful rhetoric. That rhetoric is particularly offensive when it is designed primarily to create controversy. We hear and see such bombast daily on talk radio and television, and in this case, unfortunately, we saw it in a student publication.
Besides those who are obviously affected by what was published, students and employees who have absolutely no connection to The Insurgent have been subjected to vile and vitriolic personal attacks from individuals and organizations around the country merely because of confusion with those actually involved or blind anger at anyone associated with the University of Oregon. This is equally as wrong, and it is reprehensible.
Why was this material allowed to be published and why was no disciplinary action taken against the students? Unlike many universities, the University of Oregon does not own, control, or publish student publications. Although they are funded in part by student fees, these publications are independent. They do not receive taxpayer funds. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Rosenberger and Southworth decisions ruled that a public university may not withhold fee support on the basis of the content of a publication or the viewpoint expressed by a student group. Neither content nor viewpoint is a lawful basis for denying an allocation of fees to a student group. It is sometimes asserted that "hate speech" does not enjoy protection under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly to the contrary, and it is settled law that the First Amendment forbids student disciplinary action in this matter.
So what can be done? I find myself both offended by the content and mindful of the right of freedom of expression that allows this to occur. The best response to offensive speech often is more speech. University of Oregon students are, by writing letters to the editor and guest columns in the newspaper, speaking out against the offensive material. I have enclosed a sampling of student and community commentary about this issue, including a letter printed yesterday in the Oregon Daily Emerald from senior Zachary White, a student minister at the St. Thomas More Newman Center and the first student to file a grievance against The Insurgent. He wrote:
Something I have noticed that has reassured me of the sanity and goodwill of the university is that virtually no one has come out and defended the content of The Insurgent. Some have defended The Insurgent's legal right to publish with the incidental fee, but I have not encountered anyone who has actually defended the content of the paper. Students and faculty at the University seem unified in the opinion that The Insurgent's March issue was offensive, obnoxious and simply mean-spirited. The issue of legality is one that I raised and one that will be debated in the weeks and months to come, and whatever the outcome, I can say that I have a renewed faith in the university because of the unified reaction of disgust I have seen toward the The Insurgent's March issue.
You should be proud of our students for thinking and speaking for themselves and for recognizing that offensive speech is a reflection only on those responsible for its utterance. Our campus of 20,000 hard-working and well-meaning students should not be defined by the offensive behavior of a few whose tasteless insults to religious beliefs have been overwhelmingly rejected.
Statement/response by President Frohnmayer
Thank you for your note about the student publication, The Insurgent. I share your concern about the offensive nature of the content contained within the publication. I understand why it may seem as if the University should have prevented publication or should take some action against those responsible for the publication. The Student Insurgent is not owned, controlled or published by the University of Oregon and is funded with student fees. Therefore, the University cannot exercise editorial control over its content.
Further, neither the University itself, nor the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, can exercise control over content by using a threat of removal of fee support. The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken on this matter. The Rosenberger and Southworth opinions restrict a public university's ability to make decisions about incidental fee allocations on the basis of the content or viewpoint expressed by a recognized student group. Simply put, neither content nor viewpoint is a lawful basis for denying an allocation of incidental fees to a student group.
The best response to offensive speech often is more speech. Wednesday, April 12, the daily student newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, published the enclosed letter from me reminding the campus community of the need to engage in responsible civic dialogue. I am strongly opposed to speech that makes individuals feel that they or their beliefs are unwelcome or belittled, and I can assure you I will use all permissible means to respond to publications such as the recent Insurgent.
April 12, 2006
To the Oregon Daily Emerald editor:
We are again called upon to explore the tension between the rights born from the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and the sometimes offensive content protected under this umbrella. I applaud the Emerald's April 6 editorial calling on the campus media to strive for an educated, civil dialogue concerning significant ideas and current events.
While I am an ardent supporter of free speech, I also have strong beliefs that this freedom should be exercised with maturity and good judgment. Our campus community, including our media, must be part of a civil dialogue that respects the rights and beliefs of our entire campus community even while it questions and challenges some of those beliefs.
As stated thoughtfully in the Emerald's own editorial, our media should not focus on creating controversy for controversy's sake, but should instead seek to raise significant societal issues in ways that promote campus debate rather than making individuals feel that they or their beliefs are unwelcome and belittled.