Ham Cries Free Speech, UCOSA Cries Bully

Following the cancellation of a scheduled talk by Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham, the University of Central Oklahoma’s Women’s Research Center and BGLTQ+ Student Center has denied claims that it pressured the UCO Student Association into cancelling the event.

Initial claims by AiG identified objections by a campus LGBT group as having been the university’s reason for cancelling Ham’s visit to campus. UCOSA President Stockton Duvall later clarified that the objections were raised by the Center and claimed that its members attempted to bully him into cancelling the event.

“There was a passionate discussion, but there was nothing at all that was even close to bullying,” said Center Director Lindsey Churchill. “I see it as student constituents asking their representative what’s going on.”

Ham was originally scheduled to speak as part of UCOSA’s speaker series for the 2017-2018 academic year. The offer was rescinded earlier this month after the event’s co-sponsor, Valid Worldview, decided to end its partnership with UCOSA during the discussions surrounding the Center’s concerns.

These concerns focused on UCOSA using student activity fees to pay for Ham’s talk in consideration of his previous controversial statements on women and members of the LGBTQ community, according to Churchill.

“There are too many students who are on this campus who are are already scared, who are part of the LGBT community. This is supposed to be a safe place for them, and to bring someone who is against them on campus, that’s an embarrassment to this campus,” said Mickayla Fisher, the Center’s reproductive justice coordinator.

Ham, who founded the fundamentalist Christian organization AiG in 1994, has generated controversy for his tweets denouncing homosexuality as a sin and claiming the acceptance of same-sex marriage and transgender identities is a rejection of the Bible.

He has also been the center of controversy over his promotion of Young Earth Creationism, a viewpoint that contends the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old and that the biblical account of Genesis is a scientifically accurate description of how life began.

“The issue with this particular instance is that this was a religious organization who wanted a religious speaker to come speak on our campus, claiming it was beneficial for students on an academic level,” said Elisabeth Slay, a student researcher at the Center.

While the Center asserted they had brought their concerns to UCOSA through an open dialogue on Ham’s engagement as a speaker, Duvall claimed that the Center attempted to pressure him into cancelling the event during an approximately 30 minute meeting between himself and 12 Center representatives.

Duvall said that when the meeting was arranged over the phone, he was initially expecting a meeting between Churchill and several of the Center’s student members in Churchill’s office. Instead, he said the Center attempted to use surprise and a show of force to bully him into adopting their stance on the matter.

“It’s something that there was 12 against one, I do believe there is a problem there,” Duvall said. “There have been many people on campus that I have talked to about this, and they said that never should have been allowed.”

According to both Duvall and the Center, the meeting focused on the Center’s concerns that there was insufficient representation from the student body on Ham’s scheduled talk for UCOSA to justify using student activity fees to pay for the event.

Duvall explained that while student activity fees were involved in the process, funding for the event came through a specific account that was earmarked for events sponsored by the UCOSA executives.

For each credit hour, students are charged a $14.25 student activity fee that contributes to the funding of student athletics, campus sponsored events, UCOSA and student organizations.

While approximately 54 percent of student activity fees are allocated to athletics, approximately 35 percent is provided to UCOSA to divide into seven major accounts for campus organizations such as the Fraternity and Sorority Life Council as well as UCOSA’s Ways and Means Committee.

Of that 35 percent, approximately 18 percent is allotted to the UCOSA Executive Board to use for sponsored events. For these executive board funds to be used, a majority vote amongst UCOSA’s five executive board members is required, according to Duvall.

The same account was used last semester to partner with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to pay for a talk by Little Rock Nine member Carlotta LaNier and with Leadership Central for Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, according to Duvall.

Ham, who was already scheduled to speak at Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany on March 4, was approached to be UCOSA’s last sponsored speaker for the 2017-2018 academic year on March 5. This event would have been in partnership with the student organization Valid Worldview, a Christian apologetics group sponsored by Edmond’s Fairview Baptist Church.

“While that may be the case with the funding, it still doesn’t change the fact that there are concerns over the amount of input the student body has in the use of funds for controversial purposes that their student activity fees pay into,” Churchill said.

In the meeting, Duvall said he offered to ask Ham to refrain from discussing LGBT issues during his talk and offered the possibility of securing an additional speaker at the same cost as what UCOSA would have spent on Ham’s event.

Duvall claimed the Center rejected these offers and that several members instead attempted to pressure him into cancelling the event.

“There were eye rolls, there were people giving me looks, looking across the room and who said, ‘Can you believe he just said that,’ whenever I’m just trying to stay middle ground on this issue,” Duvall said. “And there were some people who got very emotional and I felt it.”

Members of the Center denied that they attempted to pressure Duvall, but did admit they had hoped Duvall would cancel the event after listening to their concerns over the event’s funding and Ham’s threat to the LGBT community.

“We did suggest that a contrasting speaker could be brought in or that the speaker could be changed altogether, but our hope was that Stockton would hear our concerns and decide not to have Ken Ham speak on campus,” Fisher said. “But at no time during this did we attempt to bully him into that.”

While Duvall acknowledged that Ham’s stance on LGBT issues was controversial, he did point out that the focus of Ham’s talk was on his creationist viewpoint in contrast to evolutionary theory.

Ham confirmed that he had no intention of speaking LGBT issues during his talk, although he did admit that he could not guarantee the topic would not come up during the event’s 45 minute question and answer session.

“The entire focus of my speech was going to be on the science of creationism in contrast with the science of evolution,” Ham said. “While this would incorporate the Genesis truth that woman was created for man, that would have been the extent during the talk itself.”

Duvall also cited concerns that cancelling the event over Ham’s controversial viewpoints could constitute a possible violation of freedom of speech and the right of student organizations to sponsor speakers of diverse viewpoints.

“I want to be clear on this, free speech has to be free. Nobody should be forced to pay a member on our campus to come on and speak, anybody is allowed to come and speak on our campus for free,” Duvall said. “It’s one of those things that, as long as you have a student organization that will support you and invite you on campus, you are allowed on this campus.”

Concerns over free speech were echoed by the Student Alliance for Equality. With initial reports from AiG citing objections from an LGBT student group as the cause for the cancellation of Ham’s event, SAFE President Rachel Watson said the organization had been misidentified and was not involved with the discussion.

“We have always supported free speech on campus,” Watson said. “Without the right to free speech we probably wouldn’t be able to exist as an organization due to the historic discrimination against LGBTQ people, so we’re very much in favor of free speech and have had no involvement in opposing Ham speaking on campus.”

While Watson did admit that SAFE shared concerns over Ham’s comments on the LGBT community and concerns over the transparency involved in bringing him to campus, she said that the controversy had created a false impression within the media that the entirety of UCO’s LGBT community supported the cancellation of Ham’s event.

In a statement on the university’s continued dedication to promoting free speech and a diversity of viewpoints on campus, UCO President Don Betz also expressed concerns over media reports identifying the entirety of UCO’s LGBTQ community being involved.

“While any reports of bullying will be and are being investigated, it is important to state that reports that the LGBTQ community prevented Mr. Ham from being invited to campus are inaccurate and unfair to members of our campus community,” Betz said.

Betz also reiterated that UCO stands as an institution that supports freedom of speech, including the expression of controversial viewpoints. He acknowledged that while concerns have been expressed over the use of student activity funds to pay for controversial speakers, it would be difficult to avoid these concerns entirely with more than 200 student organizations on campus.

“I’m sure there isn’t a single speaker that we could invite that somebody on campus would be wildly in favor of without someone having no interest in having that person come,” Betz said. “It’s just the nature of the diversity of our institution and the diversity of the subjects that we might address.”

Although Ham is no longer scheduled to speak at UCO, his scheduled talk will be held at the same date at Fairview Baptist Church. Admission to the event is free, but seating is limited to the first 500 attendees.

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