Christian college bans pro-life display because people might think it’s pro-life
( College Fix )
A Christian college refused to allow a display of Christian crosses to honor “abortion victims,” saying it would be “divisive,” according to email correspondence obtained by conservative and civil liberties groups.
“I didn’t think it was really going to be a problem at all,” Emily Kokot, treasurer and secretary for Young Americans for Freedom at Rocky Mountain College, told The College Fix in a phone interview.
That’s because “for the last couple of years,” the administration has allowed the campus affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation to install “a 9/11 memorial where we put flags up on the ground on the campus outside” (below), she said.
Instead, Dean of Student Life Brad Nason told Kokot that “we draw the line at public displays of divisive topics,” in an email referenced by Young America’s Foundation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. (Kokot works part-time in Nason’s office.)
Pressed as to why public displays are not allowed, Nason responded that “we have effectively eliminated every student’s ability to choose to engage or not engage with that issue” if the college allows public displays. They could also imply the endorsement of the college, he wrote.
“I think the idea that people can’t separate out actions of college students from actions of a college is naive,” Adam Goldstein, program officer in FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, told The Fix in a phone interview.
“I think we all know that college students engage in activism and no one is confused that institutions are enthusiastic necessarily about every protester who shows up on campus,” he said.
FIRE launched a pressure campaign against the college last week. Its auto-generated email to President Robert Wilmouth says RMC graduates “will be ill-prepared for the world after graduation if the school continues to prohibit ‘divisive’ displays and speech.”
The cross controversy wasn’t the last time the Montana school – “historically related” to three mainline Protestant denominations – would prevent the YAF chapter from posting an abortion-related display. It also rejected an “Unborn Lives Matter” poster even though Kokot said the club followed university guidelines.
Kokot told The Fix the abortion issue isn’t even her first brush with the college on freedom of expression. She mentioned previous incidents related to pro-President Trump decorations in the dorms, a YAF display on border security, and the club’s attempts to promote an appearance by conservative pundit Katie Pavlich.
‘The pro-life/pro-choice debate is incredibly divisive’
The chain of events began in August, when Kokot emailed Nason to get approval for the cross display as part of YAF’s “pro-life week”
Nason shot her down, distinguishing between “discourse and dialogue” about the pro-life movement and public displays with pro-life themes. “You and the YAF group are welcome to table around the issues, engage students in discussions, provide guest lecturers, films, programs, etc., but we cannot approve this specific request,” he wrote in an email.
The administration doesn’t show favoritism toward some groups, the dean continued, noting President Wilmouth’s cabinet had recently denied an “unnecessarily and inappropriately confrontational” display by a liberal group.
That proposed on-campus marketing campaign “would have included what most would interpret as liberal messaging, around the topics of immigrant rights, climate change, science, and racism,” he wrote.
Frustrated by what she perceived as a defense of speech suppression, Kokot follow up with him via email: “What is the difference between spreading our message by word and having a display?” She pointed to the Student Code of Conduct, emphasizing that it “encourages students to consider and seek to understand different ideas and points of view.”
He didn’t back down. “The pro-life/pro-choice debate is incredibly divisive” and “a public display is confrontational,” Nason responded via email. It would also imply the “direct or tacit endorsement of that particular issue by the College.”
The administration has “a responsibility to create a safe, comfortable and respectful environment where students live and learn,” the dean concluded. Nason gave the same message when Rayna Laakso, president of the YAF chapter, went to visit him with Kokot on Sept. 16.
The following week, Kokot brought the dean “a couple posters,” she told The Fix. “One of them had statistics about abortion, which he allowed to be put up.” But Nason rejected a poster that read “Unborn Lives Matter” (below), even though it included the club’s name and meeting time, as required for posters. (Such identifiers give students the option to engage with the club on that particular issue, Kokot said she was told.)
Nason told Kokot that he prohibited liberal groups from also putting up posters with similar messaging, she said: “At that point, it was pretty clear that our group, and other groups, were being restricted.”
The dean’s directions are “very unclear, very subjective, and it’s just basically whatever he wants or doesn’t want up, whatever he thinks is controversial or not controversial,” Kokot told The Fix.
Neither Nason nor the college’s communications department responded to multiple requests for comment from The Fix.