Did Provost Phillips just fall into a far-right Trump setup with his response to Zoombombing?

All that I know about this incident is what I read in his email from noon today. People might be surprised that this comes from our provost, rather than from President Schill, who is after all also a law professor, but it wouldn’t be the first time he stuck a provost with a potentially problematic job.

FWIW I share our Provost’s disgust at the idea that people would shout racist slurs at an invited speaker (quoting from his email):

On Friday night, the UO School of Law’s student chapter of the American Constitution Society hosted a Zoom event. An African-American man who had spent time on death row in Florida before being exonerated and released was slated to speak. Several law faculty members participated, along with our students, students from Willamette University, and members of the public as the event was widely publicized. When the presentation began, an unidentified person or group of people began yelling racist slurs. The Zoom event was immediately shut down. Organizers decided to reopen the event, but only to known participants.

And I certainly agree with this statement personally, and also as part of the UO Community:

… know that President Schill and I, along with the UO community, denounce this repugnant behavior. No one should ever have to be subjected to this kind of act.

However his email goes on to speak for the University of Oregon as an institution of the government, and to announce a joint investigation by it. including the UO Police:

I am writing to let the entire community know that the University of Oregon — unequivocally — stands firmly against racism and all hate speech. There is zero tolerance for this egregious and offensive behavior.

School of Law administrators moved quickly to alert the Division of Equity and Inclusion, the UO Office of the General Counsel, the Office of the Provost, and the Division of Student Life officials about the incident. They also reported what happened to the UOPD and the Office of Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance. Those in attendance were offered support and other resources. The person or persons who made the racist comments have not been identified, but our Information Services unit is working with Zoom officials to conduct a joint investigation.

As it happens, one of the board members of the American Constitution Society – whose UO Law student chapter organized the event that was interrupted by these racist slurs – is Erwin Chemerinsky. In 2017, the NY Times interviewed him over his new book “Free Speech on Campus”, with this intro: “Mr. Chemerinsky is not only one of the foremost legal scholars on the First Amendment but also a firsthand witness to the free speech debates of today as the new dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law.”

Here’s what he said about restrictions on hate speech by public universities:

Erwin Chemerinsky: I think we have to be attentive to the fact that many students want to restrict speech because of very laudable instincts. They want to protect other students from hate speech. They want to create an inclusive community for all. But the response to hate speech can’t be to prohibit and punish it. It’s unconstitutional. We have to find other ways to create inclusive communities.

Natalie: For many students, it’s not just about hate speech, but the kind of speech that creates harm. This term is agonizingly broad and open to wildly different interpretations. But students aren’t wrong in thinking that speech can be a weapon.

Erwin: Students are quite right. We protect speech because of its effects. If speech had no effects, it wouldn’t be a fundamental right. Those effects can be positive but they can also be very negative. Speech can cause enormous harm. It can be hurtful, it can cause people to be excluded, and it can interfere with education or employment. Especially in colleges and universities, we have to be attentive to that.

Natalie: But you do take a hard line in your book that even hate speech must be protected.

Erwin: The law under the First Amendment is clear: Hate speech is protected speech. Over 300 colleges and universities adopted hate speech codes in the early 1990s. Every one to be challenged in court was ruled unconstitutional. And there are good reasons for that.

After some really ugly incidents at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, the school adopted a hate speech code that was undoubtedly well intentioned. But a federal court declared it unconstitutional, in part, because it was so vague. It said that there could not be speech that “demeans or stigmatizes” anyone based on race or gender. But what does that mean? A sociobiology student who challenged the law said, “I want to study whether there are inherent differences between women and men. What if my conclusions are deemed stigmatizing on the basis of gender?” And during the years Michigan’s speech code was on the books, more than 20 black students were charged with racist speech by white students. There wasn’t a single instance of a white student being punished for racist speech, even though that was what had prompted the drafting of the Michigan speech code in the first place.

That’s part of a much bigger historical pattern: As we saw in Michigan, when hate speech codes or laws are adopted, they are most often directed at the very groups they are meant to protect.

Natalie: You make the distinction in your new book that this doesn’t mean that the First Amendment is absolute. For example, there is no constitutional protection for a “true threat” or for harassment. Campuses can protect students against that kind of speech. But before you address unprotected speech, maybe we should talk a bit about the history of free speech, which you lay out in your book.

Erwin: It is hard to imagine social progress anywhere that wasn’t dependent on freedom of speech. The civil rights protests of the 1960s — the lunch counter sit-ins, the marches and demonstrations — were essential to federal civil rights acts and the end of Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of the South. The anti-Vietnam War protests were crucial for the end of that war. This has been true throughout American history. The 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote was the product of demonstrations and speech. …

Of course, we can trust the UO administration not to attempt to restrict the good kind of free speech, right? Actually, we can’t. For more on the efforts by President Schill and his General Counsel Kevin Reed to criminalize peaceful protest at UO, after a sit-in by Carbon Divestment undergraduates, see here:

2/12/2017: The UO administration wants to make peaceful protests a crime. They have proposed a new policy that will restrict the “time, place, and manner” of free speech at UO. Among the many restrictions our administration wants:

4. Use of University Campus for Speech Activities. … The interior spaces of University buildings are, generally, exclusively reserved for University business activities and therefore are not open for Speech Activities unless properly reserved in advance through the Facilities Scheduling Policy. …

And I thought one of the University’s primary business activities was free speech, or as Thomas Jefferson said, “for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Another:

6.4 While the streets and sidewalks of the campus are generally open to Speech Activities by University Entities, the Vice President for Finance and Administration may designate portions of a street and the time of day during which a street is not available for speech activities by any Person or group, in order to meet traffic, emergency access, and public transit needs. Any such restriction shall be content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral.

So they want to be able to ban marches down 13th Street by, say, South Eugene High School students protesting the Trump election. And UO students will need permission to put up protest banners:

9.4 University student organizations and ASUO may place banners or signs only in those locations authorized by University Scheduling and Event Services.

And, for those who disobey:

ENFORCEMENT

(1)            Any person violating these rules is subject to:

(a)             Institutional disciplinary proceedings, if a student or employee; and

(b)            An order to leave the immediate premises or property owned or controlled by the University by a person in charge of University property.

(2)            Persons failing to comply with an order by a person in charge to leave or to remain off the immediate premises or property owned or controlled by the University may be subject to citation or arrest for criminal trespass.

That’s right, the UO General Counsel’s office wants to have the right to arrest UO students who engage in peaceful protests such as last spring’s Divest UO sit-in.

 The full text of Provost Phillips’s email today is below the break:

From: “Provost Patrick Phillips” <provost@uoregon.edu>
Subject: Addressing an incident of racist hate speech in our community
Date: October 5, 2020 at 2:12:00 PM PDT
University of Oregon
Office of the Provost
Dear University of Oregon community,
On Friday night, the UO School of Law’s student chapter of the American Constitution Society hosted a Zoom event. An African-American man who had spent time on death row in Florida before being exonerated and released was slated to speak. Several law faculty members participated, along with our students, students from Willamette University, and members of the public as the event was widely publicized. When the presentation began, an unidentified person or group of people began yelling racist slurs. The Zoom event was immediately shut down. Organizers decided to reopen the event, but only to known participants. Upon rejoining, the racist hate speech was acknowledged, and a discussion about racism and the effects on the criminal justice system followed.
I am writing to let the entire community know that the University of Oregon — unequivocally — stands firmly against racism and all hate speech. There is zero tolerance for this egregious and offensive behavior. My heart goes out to those who were subjected to this unruly attack. If you could benefit from talking about the incident, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Counseling Services through University Health Services are available 24/7 at 541-346-3227. Alternatively, please reach out to a trusted advisor, faculty member, or colleague. Or talk about it with those close to you if you feel the need. But know that President Schill and I, along with the UO community, denounce this repugnant behavior. No one should ever have to be subjected to this kind of act.
School of Law administrators moved quickly to alert the Division of Equity and Inclusion, the UO Office of the General Counsel, the Office of the Provost, and the Division of Student Life officials about the incident. They also reported what happened to the UOPD and the Office of Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance. Those in attendance were offered support and other resources. The person or persons who made the racist comments have not been identified, but our Information Services unit is working with Zoom officials to conduct a joint investigation.
There will always be risk when we open events to the public or want to facilitate broad audience participation. But learning more about the functionality of Zoom can be helpful to minimize the risk. If you are planning and hosting events, especially those promoted widely, visit the preventing Zoombombing webpage to learn more about Zoom security practices.
Please join me in condemning what happened by always having the courage to speak up and against racism of any kind. Thanks, and take care.
Sincerely,
Patrick Phillips
Provost and Senior Vice President
1258 University of Oregon, Eugene OR 97403-1258
P: 541-346-3186 | F: 541-346-2023
You are being sent this message based on your affiliation with the University of Oregon.
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12 Responses to Did Provost Phillips just fall into a far-right Trump setup with his response to Zoombombing?

  1. ScienceDuck says:

    Will we see zoombombing as a Constitutional right being argued before the Supreme Court?

    • uomatters says:

      Will we still have a Supreme Court?

      • uomatters says:

        Sorry, couldn’t resist that. Most of what I know about the law comes from some scary conversations and threatening late night emails from UO’s lawyers. But I think we have every right to limit actions – even free-speech – if they prevent others from speaking. So maybe the best response would be “OK students, feel free to take a bathroom break while I figure out how to mute these assholes and get back to the subject at hand.”

        • thedude says:

          Does this include muting divest/defund protestors on campus? Or the GE union when the march around audibly trying to disrupt lectures?

          Where do we draw the line at speech which is disruptive and hence limits others from speaking.

          • uomatters says:

            I think that under current long established Senate approved policies we could legitimately ban ceaseless chanting and drumming (though the same rule would have to be applied to the Duck marching band). Maybe we could use this principle to cut short long-winded Zoom town-hall speeches by administrators too. Just a thought. Chalking and banners aren’t preventing anyone else’s speech, so I think we’d have to ban all of them – including that obnoxious 0 on Lillis – in order to be viewpoint neutral.

  2. ScienceDuck says:

    Here’s a twisted example of social media speech from a guy who was a chemistry grad student at UO https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-science-femme-was-allegedly-a-white-male-professor-who-posed-as-woman-of-color-and-bullied-women

  3. charlie says:

    A precedent exists for the most effective student protest actions. That was the Woolworth lunch counter sit ins in the early 60s. It was HBCU North Carolina A&T that sat at segregated Woolworts’s lunch counters. But the real power came when they further and had a consumer boycott.

    You can chain yoiurself to whatever you want, protest all you want. But it’s worthless if you keep paying tuition, dorms and meal plans, and anything else that makes a profit for the flagship. Until you withhold your money, nothing will change. The actual power resides with undergrads, which is what the NCA&T students discovered….

  4. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    I don’t know about Trump, but could it indeed be falling for a trap? A lot of attention from a lot of people, even the august UOM. Whatever the miscreant(s) did, perhaps they are getting precisely what they want? I doubt that any criminal charge could possibly come of this, but they might even want that.

  5. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    In fact, who is to say that it’s a rightwing trap? Could this be one of those many fake, staged racial incidents? No way of knowing, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

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