Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Giant Mutilated Fetuses Spark a Free Speech Controversy at UT

Liz Furbush, UT freshman and Justice for All treasurer, stands in front of the anti-abortion display sponsored by the group.
Liz Furbush, UT freshman and Justice for All treasurer, stands in front of the anti-abortion display sponsored by the group. (Photo By Alan K. Davis)

When is speech not speech?

When is a student organization not a student organization? What are the limits of "appropriate" public protest -- and who gets to decide?

And what should a state university's official response be when its campus cops manhandle a distinguished faculty member?

Those are just a few of the questions roiling the UT-Austin campus this spring in the wake of the February visit of a Kansas anti-abortion campaign that calls itself "Justice for All." Invited by a newly formed UT student group, for four days last month (Feb. 19-22), Justice for All erected at a campus crossroads a massive photo exhibit, devoted to the garishly illustrated proposition that legal abortion is a form of genocide. Predictably, sizable groups of students and faculty protested, and on Tuesday, Feb. 20, a police/protesters melee broke out over the protesters' use of an electronic megaphone. Seizing the device, a university policeman roughed up some students and slightly injured Mia Carter, associate professor of English and the interim director of UT's Center for Asian-American Studies. Later in the week, members of Justice for All said that they had felt threatened and endangered by some of the protests, and that the university's security procedures were inadequate.

The spectacle of the exhibit and the treatment of Carter -- as well as the UT administration's slowness to respond formally to the whole episode -- have left bruised feelings across the campus, and the likelihood that the controversy will continue for some time. "None of this is going to go away," Carter told the Chronicle. "Something dreadful happened on campus that day, and not just to me."


Bio-Ethical Barnstorming

David Lee, director and president of the Wichita-based Justice for All, says the group was founded in 1993 "to promote public interest in education in bio-ethical issues." As Lee described them, bio-ethical issues include such matters as "stem-cell research, cloning, and fetal research. ... But the most relevant bio-ethical issue today," he concluded, "is 'What am I going to do with this unwanted pregnancy?'"

On Justice for All's Web site (www.jfaweb.org), the group's full name is given as "Justice for All: Students for Bio-Ethical Equality" (on its official stationery, the subhead is "Students for Bio-Ethical Justice"), but Lee acknowledged in a phone interview that the organization is not a student group. (It is also unrelated to a Houston-based pro-death-penalty organization with the same name, whose source is "with liberty and justice for all" from the Pledge of Allegiance.) Indeed, it might be more accurate to describe JFA as an anti-abortion marketing campaign: Six of its seven staff members regularly travel the country speaking against abortion, using as their staging area a massive, fenced-off exhibit (5,500 square feet) of large, freestanding, professionally produced photo displays, intended to graphically illustrate what the group considers the "genocidal" nature of abortion. JFA also brought attorney James Spencer to Austin, who represented the group in discussions with school administrators. They also brought at least one cameraman, who videotaped much of the week's activities, especially the student and faculty protests.

According to its 1999 IRS filings (provided to the Chronicle by JFA), the group is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, with an annual budget of about $135,000 and two full-time paid staff members (Lee and a secretary). Lee says most of the group's funding comes from "individuals who believe in our mission." Donors are not listed, but the highly summarized information on the IRS documents indicates that a few have given annual amounts in excess of $10,000.

One of the display sections in the Justice for All exhibit
One of the display sections in the Justice for All exhibit

The JFA exhibit is neither subtle nor genteel. On the evident principle that a dime-sized fetus magnified hundreds of times has more emotional impact, it features numerous, hugely magnified photographs of mutilated or dead fetuses, purporting to illustrate the consequences of abortion. Those images are then juxtaposed to images of wartime or racist massacre (Rwanda, Cambodia, Nazi Germany, U.S. lynchings) in order to emphasize the group's central premise: that homicide, capital punishment, genocide, and abortion are varying forms of the same murderously immoral crimes. (The JFA Web site currently features full, downloadable reproductions of the exhibit as well as photos of the group's visits to Texas universities, introduced with the warning, "We regret the need for the disturbing nature of many of the photos presented. But injustice is hardly ever visually appealing and some injustices have to be seen if they are to be believed.")

Lee says JFA has "gravitated" to university campuses, visiting about 30 over the last three years, and on its tax forms claims to have organized student groups on at least six campuses. The highly emotional, slickly manufactured exhibit is clearly designed to appeal graphically to young people exploring moral and intellectual questions -- and especially to young women of childbearing years. According to Lee, the exhibit was designed with the help of the California-based Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, which he describes as a "friendly organization" and which (as part of its "Genocide Awareness Project," www.cbrinfo.org) underwrites its own campus tours using similar displays. Last year the CBR sued Indiana University, arguing that the university unconstitutionally restricted the organization's exhibit to the Bloomington campus's designated free speech area instead of permitting a more prominent, central location.

According to Elizabeth Cavendish, legal director for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the "genocide" argument is increasingly familiar from anti-abortion groups seeking to ignore the historical role of legal abortion in the larger struggle for women's rights. "It takes the debate away from the role of abortion as women's choice -- whether or not to bear a child -- to a sensationalized, emotional place, where such an idea is considered 'undiscussable,'" Cavendish said. "The argument also contributes to a climate of potential violence against abortion providers, because it carries some sense that when someone is committing 'genocide' -- like Hitler -- it would be justifiable to murder them." (JFA's Web site, like that of CBR, says the group "condemns all abortion related violence.") Cavendish added that while she is not familiar with the specific JFA exhibit, in her experience the standard materials featuring mutilated fetuses are "generally misleading."

"Ninety percent of the abortions in this country take place during the first trimester, so it's a very misleading and sensationalized version of abortion." Cavendish said. "And calling it 'genocide' is a rather disgusting comparison, and demeaning to those who are actually concerned with the Holocaust and genocide. People who advocate women's rights are instead being defined as though they are advocating murder."

"This is such a volatile, emotional subject," says Lee, "I'm afraid it's going to attract extremists from both sides."

Whatever its merits as public education, the JFA exhibit is certainly provocative: Within hours of its erection at UT, numerous students, staff, and faculty members were complaining about its size and location and demanding it be taken down. Large protests gathered in front of the exhibit throughout the following days, and numerous students and faculty said they felt "violated" or "imposed upon" by the graphic images. Many complained to the administration, and some argued that the exhibit constituted "sexual harassment" or was creating "a hostile work environment." JFA members respond that the exhibit was very effective in transmitting its message, and say that at least some students were persuaded by it to change their own position on abortion. Despite the prominent campus opposition and his own complaints about lax or inconsistent university security, Lee said he was "very impressed with UT students and their ability to discuss the issues and address the arguments. ... Probably 20 or 25 students," Lee said, "made the entire affair look bad. Thousands of students came by and we had a very civil and constructive dialogue."


Student Is as Student Does

In the wake of the JFA exhibit and the subsequent protests, much of the UT debate -- on all sides -- has concerned not abortion rights or wrongs, but the rules and limits governing free speech at the university.

JFA's visit to UT-Austin was officially sponsored by a UT student group that formed last fall and took the same name. According to the group's chairman, UT sophomore Jeremy Adler, he was trying to form a campus right-to-life group when he came across a Justice for All brochure and got in touch with the Kansas organization. The student group's faculty sponsor, engineering professor John Cogdell, tells the story a bit differently: He says David Lee called him because he had learned of Cogdell's position on anti-abortion issues, and Cogdell arranged a fall meeting between Lee and a small group of student activists already forming a group called something like "Protecting the Rights of the Unborn." At the meeting with Lee, it was agreed that the name "Justice for All" was more "positive," and UT's "Justice for All: Students for Bio-Ethical Justice" was born. Their first activity was to begin organizing the visit of the JFA exhibit.

This history has since become important, because the UT rules governing the activities of "student" vs. "outside" organizations are complex and subject to widely varying interpretations. The UT students even signed a formal $1 "contract" for services with Lee's group, thereby allowing it to manage directly the physical construction of the exhibit.

Mia Carter, associate professor of English at UT, addresses abortion rights supporters after being injured when police seized a megaphone she was using.
Mia Carter, associate professor of English at UT, addresses abortion rights supporters after being injured when police seized a megaphone she was using. (Photo By Alan K. Davis)

Since the three regulation-defined UT "rally areas" are too small to accommodate the massive JFA exhibit, Adler's group -- with the persistent assistance of JFA attorney James Spencer -- applied in December for permission to hold the event on UT's large main mall, just south of the Tower (site of commencement as well as other large university public events). That request was initially rejected by the Dean of Students' office, but subsequent JFA appeals finally reached the desk of UT President Larry Faulkner. In mid-February ("three days before the event was scheduled to happen," says Adler), the president's office suggested that the event be held in front of Gregory Gym, where Speedway has been recently closed and converted into a pedestrian mall. The space had previously been used only for noncontroversial student activities (e.g., the Ski Club), but administrators say they were considering adapting it for an additional "free speech area." As UT-System attorney Mike Godfrey recalls, the rules for the Gregory Gym area were not yet completely worked out, but the president decided the JFA event could function as a "prototype."

Cheryl Wood, of the Office of Student Affairs, says there was never any question that the JFA exhibit would be allowed; it was just a matter of finding the appropriate place. "We put exhibits all over the place," Wood said, "but we don't put student exhibits on the Main Mall." Adler, however, points out that UT allows private exhibitors -- like the Fortune 500 -- to take over and obstruct the Main Mall for days at a time, and he believes the long delay in getting a site for the JFA exhibit was a violation of "due process." Replies Wood, "The university decides what it will allow on campus." When administrators insisted that exhibit information listing the national JFA's Web site and other off-campus crisis pregnancy information be concealed, the group did so with signs that read, "Censored by UT."

Yet as some of the student and faculty protesters see it, the standard UT rules governing student and nonstudent groups were stretched to the breaking point -- perhaps with the intervention of the UT Regents -- to accommodate Justice for All, and as a result, a "professional, off-campus" group essentially used students as a cover to bring their message to campus. According to Elizabeth Cullingford, an English professor involved in the protests, "Campus rules prohibit any exhibit not designed, built, and erected by the on-campus student group itself. That exhibit ... broke all those rules." Wood, who monitored the JFA activity from its first application to its last moments on campus, insists that the regents had no role in the decisions and that throughout the process, "Our rules were enforced consistently." Except for making certain that the exhibit was not used directly to promote off-campus organizations, Wood said, at no time did the administration "consider the content" of the JFA exhibit.


Free Speech Is Offensive Speech

Matters came to a head on Tuesday, February 20, when a couple of hundred students gathered at midday to join a protest called by the student chapter of the International Socialist Organization. Michael Corwin of ISO, a UT staff member, said several student groups were involved, and that all basically agreed that in the face of the JFA exhibit, it was important to have a "concentrated presence" in support of abortion rights. According to Mia Carter, the size of the crowd made it difficult to hear the speakers, and -- although they were aware of the UT rule that no "amplified sound" is normally allowed beside nearby classroom buildings -- several faculty members decided to use a small electronic bullhorn to address the audience. "It seemed really unfair," said Carter, "because we couldn't make ourselves heard, yet these images were screaming at us." At first Carter held the mike for Cullingford, while students provided a protective circle for the speakers against a ring of police attempting to seize the bullhorn. When Carter took the mike herself, the police surged against the students (pushing one or two to the ground), and one policeman came up behind Carter and yanked the bullhorn away -- the flying microphone cut Carter above the eye and the cord ripped the skin on her neck.

Later, some onlookers suggested that the police became more aggressive when Carter -- an African-American -- took the microphone, but Cheryl Wood described that speculation as "ridiculous." "When we permitted the protest," said Wood, "we made it crystal clear that there was to be no amplified sound, and at the time the speakers were given two verbal warnings. ... The police were not overly aggressive." At first, Carter said she was uncertain whether she was singled out by the police because she is black. "People keep asking me that," she told the Chronicle. "Actually -- when it was happening it was so scary, but [in hindsight] when I was holding up the megaphone for Liz Cullingford, they let us alone. It was only when I turned that microphone to myself that the police surged on us." At the UT faculty council meeting Monday, Carter said bluntly, "I felt singled out -- because the minute I, a black woman, started speaking out through that microphone, the police found an urgent need to take it away" (see "A Treasured Value," p.24).

Cullingford and several of the other protesters point out that while the rule against amplified sound was being rigidly enforced by campus police, David Lee continued directly supervising the erection of the JFA exhibit. "Consistency is crucial here," says Cullingford, "and we were not consistently treated. An outside group was allowed to drive a truck through UT's own rules, in the name of freedom of speech, but our freedom of speech was not allowed."

No one was arrested, although one policeman complained that he had been bitten in the crush and a suspected student was momentarily detained and released. The next day at similar protests, journalism professor Robert Jensen was standing nearby, holding a bullhorn, and was told by police to either surrender it or leave the area. Jensen says he put the bullhorn away, although the police could not cite a regulation forbidding his possession of it. "It amounted to a preemptive seizure," says Jensen. "Cops are not supposed to make up rules on the spot."

On Thursday, the final day of the exhibit, a few protesters moved inside the metal barricades surrounding it and sat down in protest, while police protected the exhibit itself. David Lee says that JFA students were told by police to move away to protect themselves against injury should the exhibit be damaged, but that Cheryl Wood insisted students must directly supervise the exhibit at all times or it would come down. "She was placing university policy above student safety," said Lee.

"One student yelled 'Let's bring it down!' and things were a little tense for about one minute," said Wood, "but never was the exhibit in danger of falling. I just told them what the rules were. ... Later, their lawyer came and complained that we were endangering the students." Asked if JFA might be considering legal action, attorney James Spencer refused to comment, and Lee said any such action would be "driven by students."


'A Lot of Fun'

On the first day of the JFA exhibit, UT's faculty council briefly debated a motion by English professor Barbara Harlow requesting that the exhibit be declared "offensive" and taken down. Philosophy professor Robert Koons responded that the purpose of the First Amendment was to protect offensive expression. For lack of a quorum, Harlow's motion was never voted on. A week later, the Student Government by acclamation passed a resolution calling for an administration apology to the university community, and a public clarification of the campus rules governing free speech. (Carter spoke at the student assembly, summarizing her experience and successfully requesting an amendment that the apology not be directed to her: "I don't want this to become 'The Mia Carter Incident,'" she said.) Carter has consulted a local attorney, and last Friday met privately with UT President Larry Faulkner and accepted his personal apology. "It took three and a half weeks," said Carter, "but he said all the right things. He made it clear that he understands that this affected not just me, but the whole campus. Now real things need to happen." Faulkner, who released an official statement to the faculty council Monday (see "A Treasured Value," p.24), declined to comment in advance, and was out of the country at press time.

Mia Carter says that in the wake of the JFA episode, "My whole relationship to this [campus] has changed. I'm a little paranoid when I pass by university police, and I don't really feel safe. I feel highly visible, and that's upsetting." As to what might happen next, she says, "Now there's been a precedent. People from right-wing or left-wing organizations can see: You make the right threats and talk to the right people and the university opens its doors for you and breaks all its own rules -- which still apply for the students and faculty -- because you have the power and clout. If this had been a well-funded, left-wing, anti-death-penalty organization, do I think they would be granted the same privileges and flexibility? No, I do not. Call me cynical, but that's very difficult for me to imagine."

Jeremy Adler of Justice for All, in contrast, described the whole experience as "great." "If people didn't want to see [the exhibit], they didn't have to look at it. ... It's not here to shock people with gory photos, it's to show people an industry in America that's going on. We can't wait to bring it back. ... Our goal of starting a reasoned debate on campus was realized." Adler says he hopes to bring the JFA exhibit back to campus next semester, adding, "It was definitely worth it. It was a lot of fun. This is why the university exists."

A new student group, Action for Abortion Rights, organized in the wake of the protests, is planning its own exhibit in April at the Gregory Gym location. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle