The provocative photo exhibit of aborted fetuses and human embryos ended on the MU campus Wednesday without the emotional confrontations that people on both sides of the abortion debate feared.
However, almost as soon as the two-story, billboard-sized photo exhibit went up in front of Kuhlman Court on Monday morning, tensions between the university and the group hosting the display, Mizzou Justice for All: Students for Bio-Ethical Equality, simmered behind the scenes.
The conflict arose when the group’s members expressed their wish to carry “pro-life” placards around the rest of the MU campus. But when several students appeared with the signs near Brady Commons on Monday morning, university officials informed them that Mizzou JFA’s exhibition was restricted by prior agreement to the north end of Kuhlman Court.
That prompted Mizzou JFA attorney Jim Spencer to warn MU officials in a letter that the organization was prepared to sue for the “unconstitutional denial” of the students’ rights to carry hand-held signs on campus.
“MU is already ripe to be sued,” Spencer wrote to Marvin “Bunky” Wright, general counsel for the MU system. “However, my clients are not anxious to sue their university. The sooner MU allows JFA to carry its hand-held signs, the less likely they are to file a suit.”
Wright said that MU had not attempted to deny Mizzou JFA’s First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, but declined further comment.
Spencer said he received no response to his letter to Wright. But on Tuesday, university officials told Mizzou JFA that because the anti-abortion display was restricted to Kuhlman Court, members would need written permission to carry the signs elsewhere on campus.
That permission was granted late Tuesday afternoon, and several of the members were seen with the signs, which simply read “Pro-Life,” on the exhibit’s final day.
“The law is clear that students at this university have a constitutional right to carry signs so long as they do not create a safety violation or obstruction of pedestrians and vehicles,” Spencer said.
“They’ve (Mizzou JFA) followed the procedures and we’ve accommodated what they’ve requested,” said Mary Jo Banken, director of the MU news bureau.
She reiterated that when organizations reserve a space such as Kuhlman Court, they have to submit written requests to make the display mobile.
“That was not apart of their original request,” she said.
As stated under the Tables Policy in the Missouri Unions Manual, “No signage or activity by any member of the organization shall extend beyond the table provided. Organizations may not utilize any other area except that which they have reserved.”
The obstacle of having to submit a mobile sign request was not the only thing that upset Mizzou JFA.
Spencer had advised the MU Police Department on Oct. 10 that the exhibit might cause protest and would possibly need extra security. On Oct. 17, university officials told Mizzou JFA president Emilie Duncan that the organization might be required to pay for extra security if the group thought it would indeed be necessary.
On Oct. 20, “Spencer gave MU until 3 p.m. to assure the group that MU would not adhere to the pay-for-protection policy. Otherwise, JFA would file for an injunction,” said a Mizzou JFA release dated Oct. 22.
According to the Event Policy in the Missouri Unions Manual, however, “It is the responsibility of the host organization to bear any of the related costs for the event.” Security is listed as a possible cost.
No extra security was needed, however, so the issue was dropped.
“This is a politically incorrect message and the university doesn’t like it, it’s abrasive and offensive, and the university would rather it not be here, that’s the way it seems by their actions,” said Jonathan Block, public affairs coordinator for Mizzou JFA. “If we didn’t have representation, our First Amendment Rights would have been squashed, That’s the real issue.”