By Alex Cremer, Eder Campuzano and Gordon Friedman
Editor’s note: A video included in this article contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers. This video was obtained from a source outside the Emerald.
Several students surrounded three anti-abortion activists at the intersection of 13th Avenue and University Street on Tuesday before attempting to destroy a graphic poster one of the men was holding in protest.
University of Oregon Young Americans for Liberty President Thomas Tullis and Vice President Brandon Clements recorded the incident, where the activists displayed graphic depictions of aborted fetuses as they denounced abortion.
Only one of the activists had his materials tampered with. He could not be identified prior to publishing.
History major Allison Rutledge was the first to damage the anti-abortion activist’s poster. She stood on it and claimed that the activist didn’t have the right to display the graphic imagery. The video doesn’t make it clear when the anti-abortion activist’s sign ends up on the ground (it cuts before the action happens).
“This is my property,” the activist said, as Rutledge stood on his sign. “Just leave us alone.”
The video cuts after a while, but Rutledge is later seen leading a chant in order to get the anti-abortion activist to leave University of Oregon property.
“All I’d like to say about why I decided to actually take the sign from him is I realized it was his property, but it was a piece of paper. I considered the sign obscene and offensive and intending to anger and start a scene,” Rutledge said when contacted for comment. “I didn’t want to look at that obscenity.”
She called the incident a tussle before saying that she felt emotionally threatened by the anti-abortion activist’s sign.
“There’s a limit to what people should be forced to look at,” Rutledge said. “We didn’t like it and we actually made him put his sign away. We had no problem with his opinion, but it was his sign. You can’t just show whatever you want.”
The Oregon Supreme Court in 1984 ruled that any censorship of material considered obscene is unconstitutional.
After Rutledge’s back-and-forth with the activist, other protesters began to call for his dismissal from campus.
“This is our campus and we don’t want it — we don’t want you and your ugliness,” another unidentified woman said in the video.
“This is so violent. This is obscene,” the woman told the anti-abortion activist. “This is not part of your First Amendment rights. This is unbelievable.”
Although Rutledge and the other protesters didn’t violate the activist’s First Amendment rights — that’s only a claim that can be used when the government attempts to suppress speech — Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank Lomonte said that liability for theft or battery comes into play when personal property is involved.
“It’s never a good idea to use violence to silence a person whose speech you find upsetting,” Lomonte said.
UOPD officer John Loos responded to the scene before the students attempted to destroy the poster, incorrectly citing ASUO policy as university policy and saying that the activist had to stop the “Hitler stuff,” otherwise he would be asked to leave the property.
“I don’t see where you’re showing how I’m actually violating the law,” the activist said as Loos asked him to put away the poster. “There would be no need to protect freedom of speech if everybody agreed.”
Loos said that the activist wouldn’t be arrested. He just had to put the sign away or leave.
“You are breaking the rules of this institution. You are not breaking any laws in my opinion,” Loos said. “This is a privately owned institution, even though it’s a public school. If it’s considered to be demeaning or anything like that, it’s not allowed.”
Loos is a first-year police line officer for the UOPD. He was hired in October 2013, graduated from the police academy in February 2014, and completed field training with Eugene Police in summer 2014.
Loos went on to call the activist the instigator of the heated back-and-forth, further saying that the anti-abortion activist was violating student government rules.
“I want you to calm down first,” Loos said. “You’re breaking an ASUO rule — I don’t know the rule off the top of my head.”
Loos said that the graphic didn’t violate the First Amendment, although its vulgarity warranted a request for the anti-abortion activist to either put it away or leave campus. Loos said that his primary concern was to help the protesters and activists avoid any physical confrontation.
“I’m not picking sides here,” Loos tells the anti-abortion activist. “What I’m trying to do is work a compromise so that these two groups could be doing this all day without having a fight.”
After a moment, the responding sergeant, Frank Sorrentino, showed up and corrected Loos. The two UOPD officials discussed the graphic for a moment and concluded that the activist could stay.
“If you’re cool with it, I’m cool with it and we can let this gentleman do his thing,” Loos said.
Sorrentino agreed and said that he was okay with the activist’s demonstration as long as there was no physical violence.
UO Police Chief Carolyn McDermed submitted a statement to The Emerald:
“As free speech is a cornerstone of a public university, we expect our officers to understand the relevant laws and police, and do their professional best to protect the speech rights of everyone on campus, while ensuring safe access to our facilities and public rights of way. All UOPD officers will be reminded of the relevant laws and policies, and their role in protecting the safe practice of free speech on our campus.”
“Everybody has a right to their opinion,” the activist said.
You can check out the full video below: