A graphic display
Pro-life demonstration triggers controversy at Butte College
A pro-life movement called Project Truth set up shop for a couple of days last week on Butte College’s main campus in Oroville to lobby against abortion by distributing pamphlets and displaying posters that some students and faculty deemed offensive.
By the last day of the demonstration, one student had been cited for vandalism after allegedly tearing down a poster, and another who came to her defense was arrested on a charge of assault. The school administration had sent a notice to faculty and staff via email on both days announcing Project Truth’s presence on campus, but some students complained that they didn’t get the memo.
The notice warned: “Their anti-abortion message will be accompanied by posters and large graphic representations of what may be offensive to staff and students. For those individuals who find these types of graphic materials disturbing, please take an alternate route through campus today. Project Truth has a right to be on campus to present their point of view as we are a public institution.”
Those posters included photos of bloody aborted fetuses next to photos of living fetuses inside their mothers’ wombs.
A group of pro-choice supporters gathered nearby with signs in opposition on Oct. 22, the first day of the protest. The demonstration by each side continued well into the afternoon of the next day, until a student identified by Butte College Police as Sophia G.L. Green apparently took offense and reportedly grabbed a poster to take it down. Witnesses said another student, whom campus police identified as David Boone, interceded to prevent members of the anti-abortion group from physically stopping Green. Someone associated with Project Truth called the police, who responded and cited Green for vandalism and arrested Boone on a charge of assault.
Tim Hansma, one of the pro-choice demonstration organizers, called Project Truth’s tactics into question. “I talked to other students and I found that they weren’t just protesting abortion,” he said. “They were being verbally abusive, intrusive, and using guilt and shame tactics on my fellow students.”
Hansma said he complained to the administration that ample notice was not given to properly stage a counter-protest. He said Green had asked him about taking down the offensive poster and that he told her it was probably not a good idea.
“One of the Truth guys grabbed her and another guy stepped in and said, ‘Don’t touch her. Leave her alone. You have no right to touch her,’” Hansma explained.
He said a person with Project Truth had threatened to call the campus police, so he stepped in to try to quell the situation, but before he could, the police arrived.
The Project Truth group that visited Butte College consisted mostly of middle-age to elderly men who said their demonstrations are a way of explaining what they see as the horrors of abortion and debunking the arguments made by pro-choice folks.
A message on the group’s Facebook page defines its purpose: “Project Truth visits university campuses around the state to show as many students as possible what abortion actually does to unborn children and get them to think about abortion in a broader scientific context.”
Project Truth’s Don Wright, who was on the Butte College campus during the demonstration, echoed that message, saying the organization’s goal to educate students about the realities of abortion is working. “We have hundreds of students that are changed by our presence,” he said. “We’re a group that believes that abortion is an act of violence that kills a baby, and that’s why we’re here.”
Wright defended the group’s presence on campus.
“Public schools are public places,” he said, “and so you have the right to free speech on the campus just like you’d have it down at the park, or on a corner downtown next to the courthouse. We have been going around to all of the colleges in California. Our team and another team have been going to all of the colleges for about 10 years now. We were here a couple of years ago.”
A day after the demonstration ended, Butte College President Kimberly Perry sent out an email message addressing the controversial nature of the demonstration and its aftermath, and gave an explanation of school policy.
“Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning,” she wrote. “Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge, but equally they interpret, explore and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new. This mission guides learning outside the classroom quite as much as in the classroom and often inspires vigorous debate on those social, economic and political issues that arouse the strongest passions. In the process, views will be expressed that may seem to many as wrong, distasteful or even offensive.”
School policy, Perry said, allows for the expression of free speech as long as certain criteria are met.
“Members of the public are required to provide a 24-hour notice of their intent to use Butte College facilities,” she wrote. “That request must be accompanied by a description of the activities in which they will be engaged. The administration can reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression in the designated (free speech) public forum area. Further, persons using and/or distributing material in these areas shall not impede the progress of passersby nor shall they force passersby to take material.”
Project Truth member John Edgar suggested that accusations made about the organization’s alleged aggressive behavior were “more than likely false or overblown.”
“We want dialogue,” he said. “You shut down the educational process with yelling and screaming, so we try to be civil.”
Edgar dismissed criticism from students who had pointed out that the group was composed of older men. That carries no weight because it attacks the arguer rather than the argument, he said.
“Ideas don’t have a gender,” he said. “And this is just an ad hominem attack.”
Student Christina Whaley wasn’t buying it.
“As a female, I take this personally,” she said. “It’s all men over there pushing their agenda and fliers I don’t want. It should be about safe sex. As a human, it’s natural to feel sexual urges. Prevention should be prioritized over scare tactics. I find their display disrespectful.”
Another student named Corine Mercer said students did not receive proper warning prior to Project’s Truth’s upcoming presence on campus. “All staff were sent an email about Project Truth setting up,” she said, “so such a thing must have been approved. Students should [also] have been notified.”
Butte College students Talea Mitchell and Jose Olivar contributed to this story.