Students Demand Answers from UCOSA
The controversy over free speech, bullying claims and the cancellation of creationist Ken Ham’s speaking engagement at the University of Central Oklahoma took center stage at last week’s UCO Student Association meeting.
Members of UCO’s Women’s Research Center and BGLTQ+ Center, the Student Alliance for Equality and several graduate students attended the meeting to voice their concerns to members of UCOSA’s executive board for having invited Ham to speak as well as the assertion made by UCOSA President Stockton Duvall that the Center had attempted to bully him into cancelling the event.
“I want to say that no bullying occurred and that we will open an investigation into that claim, but the lack of professionalism shown by UCOSA President Stockton Duvall has dragged UCO through the mud,” said Savannah Waters, a project leader at the Center. “The Center’s reputation has been damaged by Mr. Duvall’s actions and unsupported claims to media outlets.”
She went on to discuss how members of the Center had been threatened and harassed because of Duvall’s allegations. The claims stemmed from a 30-minute meeting between Duvall and the Center on the issue of inviting Ham, during which Duvall said that the Center had attempted to pressure him into cancelling Ham’s scheduled talk.
The Center had previously raised concerns with Duvall about paying for Ham’s speaker fees with student activity fees, citing his negative comments towards the LGBT community as hate speech.
Waters asked that Duvall issue an apology to the Center for his accusations and for the way the LGBT community had been singled out in the media as having attempted to cancel Ham’s event.
Senate Chair Remington Dean acknowledged these concerns and said that while he understood the significance of the issues raised, that he hoped that everyone involved would keep the feedback constructive.
“I understand that a lot of people are mad or upset with Stockton, but keep in mind that he is a young adult,” Dean said. “We are all between the ages of 18 and roughly 24. We all make mistakes, that’s just how it is. None of us are intentionally going out of our way to intentionally harm this campus.”
Further concerns over the bullying allegations were raised during the meeting by SAFE, who asked that UCOSA initiate an investigation both into the circumstances that brought Ham to campus and into the bullying claims made by Duvall.
“SAFE is worried about all the conflicting reports that have been released about the events, and we’d like to see UCOSA form an investigative body and come out with a report or a clarifying statement on the actual chain of events that had brought Ham in the first place and resulted in his not coming,” said SAFE President Rachel Watson.
Dean said that he would consider the possibility of organizing a UCOSA committee to investigate the situation, but clarified that an investigation was already being overseen by the university’s provost.
The conversation transitioned from bullying to questions of separations of church and state when graduate student Jay Smith criticized UCOSA for the negative publicity generated over Ham’s invitation and the fact that student activity fees would have been used for the event.
“UCO is crumbling under this, this has been chipping away at our solid foundations, one of which is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Smith said. “This almost took us to a place of being embarrassed nationally and we would have had every university in the nation asking how this could have happened at an institution that is publically funded.”
While the question of the use of public funds for bringing a religious speaker to campus has been raised by multiple members of the campus community, the issue has been complicated by the fact that religious student organizations on campus are funded through the same process as other student organizations.
With more than 200 student organizations on campus, UCO President Don Betz has said that it would be difficult to find any speaker that would be accepted by all members of the campus community.
“UCO’s Student Congress is here to represent all students and there are students who have expressed interest in that speaker and whether a minority or a majority, we will continue to represent all students,” Dean said.
Earlier this month UCOSA rescinded their invitation to Ham after the event’s partnership with Christian student organization Valid Worldview ended due to what Duvall said were communication problems.
The situation propelled UCO into the center of a controversy over free speech, after Ham’s organization Answers in Genesis claimed that UCO had cancelled the event because of pressure from the campus’ LGBT community to censure Ham’s viewpoints.
While both UCOSA and the campus administration have released statements clarifying the situation, Betz invited Ken Ham back to speak on campus at the same date in a move to demonstrate the university’s commitment to free speech.