The ASUO senate passed a resolution condemning white supremacy on Nov. 27. The UO College Democrats’ call to defund and derecognize the UO College Republicans prompted the statement, after UOCR posted a video of an interview with a Texan Proud boy to its Facebook page and a picture of members at a “Stop the Steal” rally to its Instagram with Proud Boy flags visible in the background.
ASUO President Isaiah Boyd said part of the resolution’s intention was to take an official stance against white supremacy. While the legislative branch declared its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in a letter in July, had talked about a resolution to combat racism during the 2016-2017 academic year and is actively working on another resolution in support of Black members of the UO community, they had yet to pass an official document.
Senate Vice President and law student Natalie Fisher said the resolution “felt like an important thing for the senate to reiterate.” She said it was essential that this first action come from ASUO’s legislative body because it’s the branch that is most representative of UO students.
“There’s been so much going on in the summer and all spring and also for the entire history of this country,” Fisher said. She sees the incident with UOCR as an important moment for ASUO to double down on its stance against white supremacy and backing of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“[Black Lives Matter] isn’t something that was a trend this summer that we all posted on our Instagrams about,” Fisher said. “It’s something that is ongoing and something that needs to be continually addressed and discussed.”
While the resolution doesn’t have real power beyond a statement of value, it asked that the ASUO executive take action and join its legislative branch in denouncing “affiliation with white nationalist and white supremacist groups,” as well as holding ASUO-recognized student groups to a higher cultural competency standard.
The ASUO executive branch’s response “unequivocally condemns all forms of white supremacy and white nationalism” and acknowledges that UOCR “has failed to demonstrate a commitment to our values.” However, the statement also alludes to the limits to ASUO’s power. As a student government body at a school that receives federal funding, ASUO is subject to its own guidelines, university policy and the U.S. Constitution.
Boyd said that he wants any actions the ASUO executive branch takes to adhere to existing rules as closely as possible to avoid further polarization on the issue. “The one thing that I really don’t want to have to do is blow this up into a national issue that could bring more unwanted attention,” he said. “While we’re trying to press [UOCR] and make sure that we’re holding our values, we don’t compromise our students’ safety.”
However, he acknowledged that, even within the rules, ASUO is relatively autonomous when it comes to the incidental fee and funding student organizations.
The senate controls how ASUO spends I-fee dollars and can restrict funding on the basis of subject, but not on a student organization’s interpretation of that rule.
“Those decisions have to be viewpoint-neutral,” said Fisher, “meaning that no student organization can have their funding affected based on their perception of something,” whether that’s “based on their perception of white supremacy” or otherwise. However, she said no decision will be completely free of bias.
As an example, she pointed to a section of the ASUO senate rules which declares that I-fee money cannot be spent on bottled water. While the senate can refuse to allocate money to student organizations if they plan on spending it on water bottles, it cannot restrict money based on how the organization perceives that rule. “We cannot say ‘because you spent I-fee dollars on a water bottle, you no longer have access to any I-fee dollars,’” Fisher said.
Fisher said that while the rule itself was not viewpoint neutral on the plastic water bottles — the senators who passed the bylaw were likely motivated by the Climate Justice League’s environmental activism — its application meets the viewpoint neutrality standard in that it applies to everybody equally, regardless of their opinion on single-use water bottles.
Fisher said the line of reasoning behind the water bottle rule might allow room to deny funding for “white supremacy,” but exactly what that means and how ASUO could do that within the system it’s operating in has yet to be determined. Additionally, it’s unclear if that regulation would influence the matter at hand. UOCR did not use I-fee funding to attend the “Stop the Steal” event in question, Program Finance Committee Vice Chair Asa Ward said.
It is also unclear if such a rule would be unconstitutional, as hate speech that does not incite violent action is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment. Specifically in question is the freedom of speech clause, as members of the UOCR argued at the Nov. 27 senate meeting.
Boyd said he and a handful of other ASUO officers have been exploring ASUO’s rights as a student government. One of the cases they’ve been looking at is Widmar v. Vincent, a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court case declaring public schools can’t deny recognition to student groups which are protected under the first amendment. Rulings like College Republicans at San Francisco State University v. Reed and Dambrot v. Central Michigan University hold that the majority of university policies regulating speech are unconstitutional.
“As hard as it is, you have to remember that the reason these rules exist is because these institutions used to be all male and White,” said Fisher, “and then that started to change. The vast majority of students did not like that.”
She said that not long ago, if not for these rules, a group like ASUO could easily have been inclined to deny funding toward student organizations like the Women's Law Forum for supporting ideas of equality in the legal community. And, while unlikely, without these rules, it’s not impossible that a future ASUO could withhold funding from organizations supporting Black Lives Matter.
“Why should you trust your peers to determine what can and cannot be said on campus?” Fisher said.
Even if ASUO were to address this purely on executive authority, the procedures are vague.
Under the student organization rules about potential violations, the ASUO programs administrator or president can take action if a group “ceases to manage its affairs in a reasonable and responsible manner” or violates ASUO, UO or U.S. laws. However, it is unclear what qualifies as “reasonable and responsible” and whether “affairs” refers exclusively to I-fee spending or can be applied to the overall conduct of a student organization.
Even if ASUO can apply the term more broadly, the student governing body may not have a mechanism under which they can take action against UOCR. While ASUO exists to support the development of its I-fee paying members and its diversity plan states the importance of inclusion, the diversity plan also provides that it is important that all ASUO-affiliated groups are given a voice “even if their individual doctrine does not specifically reflect the goals of the ASUO Diversity Plan.”
Boyd said he plans on creating a committee to revise these rules at the beginning of the winter term “with the goal being to offer more clarity in the grievance structure and rule violation processes.” He said he hopes this will provide ASUO officers with a better understanding of the rules they are operating within and what actions they can take going forward.
Boyd also wants to take the time to adapt other ASUO structures that exist, such as revisiting the diversity plan. Additionally, in alignment with what the senate called for in its resolution, he plans on revising the student organization rules to mandate that officers in ASUO-recognized groups attend cultural competency training during fall, winter and spring terms — rather than the current once per academic year requirement.
Beyond rule changes, Boyd sees the current situation as a potential launching point for conversation. The ASUO executive branch statement alludes to an educational series on white supremacy and institutional racism, running through the winter quarter.
Boyd says he wants “to make sure that we’re catering to everyone’s needs, not just one identity group or one group of students. [We’re] trying to make it as diverse as possible so we can really cover the spectrum of individuals that you need to know their stories and understand their way of life and the inequalities that they face.”
“We’re hoping to really centralize everything that we’ve been hearing into an educational workshop that students can attend and feel like they’re getting something out of it,” Boyd said.
Fisher said she is fully in support of Boyd’s ideas. “This is definitely part of a bigger conversation that needs to happen in the university and society as a whole,” she said, referencing a conversation she recently had with a UO law professor.
“If we as an institution cannot offer students a space to come together with one set of agreed upon facts of a situation and then have a conversation about that,” Fisher said, “if we’re not able to do that in a university setting — which is literally the point of a university — where else in society are we going to be able to do this?”