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Cancellation of Christian speaker’s event at UCO stirs controversy

EDMOND, Okla. - An event at University of Central Oklahoma that was supposed to feature a Christian speaker was suddenly canceled, raising some questions.

Ken Ham, well-known president of Answers in Genesis, a ministry dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith, was slated to speak next month on campus.

The president of UCO's student body said he was pressured to call off the event by a group that supports LGBTQ rights.

Lindsey Churchill, Ph.D., is the director of the Women's Research Center and BGLTQ+ Student Center.

Her group was not happy when they heard student funds would be used to bring Ham and what they believed were his anti-gay views to campus.

"They didn't know that their funds were paying for this speaker, who they see as homophobic - was able to come to this school without them knowing," Churchill said. "I think that's the biggest issue."

"I don't know if UCO supports the ideals he puts out there but, no, if he wants to come, that's fine," said Makenna Mittelstet, a junior at UCO. "We, as students, I don't think our funds should be able to be forced to pay for him to come."

Representatives from the center complained to student leaders, and ultimately the speech was canceled.

UCO's student body president, Stockton Duvall, said he was bullied into making the decision. It's an allegation the group denies.

Paul Blair, pastor at Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, had a hand in setting up the event. He believes free speech was trampled in the case.

"Lindsey Churchill rounded up the LGBT groups to complain about Ken being on campus for fear that he may talk about the gay and lesbian issue," Blair said.

Campus Pastor Dave Mehlhaff with ValidWorldView said, overall, college students miss out when they aren't exposed to differing views - even ones they don't agree with.

"This is a university college campus, and the beauty of it is that all perspectives can be shared and he was wanting to promote his perspective," Mehlhaff said.

The student body president took to Twitter to address the situation.

The UCO Women's Research Center & Blgtq+ Student Center posted this statement on their Facebook page:

University President Don Betz and UCO released the following statements regarding freedom of expression:

"Recent statements on social media and in the press have reported on the decision by the University of Central Oklahoma Student Association (UCOSA) to withdraw from negotiating a contract with Mr. Ken Ham of the organization Answers in Genesis. While we understand and appreciate the many points of view being provided on this topic, we wish to clarify for the community our view and practice of speech.

The University of Central Oklahoma supports the democratic processes guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution by ensuring that all groups have the right to access a venue for free speech on our campus. We are a marketplace for the exchange of free ideas and we embrace the opportunity to do so. That’s what makes us free.

As a public institution whose campus is public property, our doors are open to any who wish to express their ideas so long as student and public safety is preserved. A variety of groups representing a full spectrum of ideas and opinions regularly come to our campus and speak freely, and we have public spaces for them to do so. That includes demonstrators that support a variety of sometimes controversial positions.

Our campus community is composed of many people and organizations that offer various viewpoints on many topics. A diverse group of students posed questions about the decision to invite Mr. Ham to campus. While any reports of bullying will be and are being investigated, it is important to state that reports that the LGBTQ community prevented Mr. Ham from being invited to campus are inaccurate and unfair to members of our campus community.

As we reflect on the conversation that has emerged during the past two days, we expect the outcome of that discussion to only strengthen our resolve to remain the inclusive and diverse community we have become, and will remain, at UCO.

No one has the ability, nor has UCO ever attempted, to limit speech on our campus.  All who wish to freely express their ideas in a peaceful and civil manner, including Mr. Ham, are welcome to do so at the University of Central Oklahoma." - Betz said.

"The University of Central Oklahoma stands firm in its policy regarding freedom of expression. UCO is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged while keeping the safety of our community a top priority.

In the specific matter of Mr. Ham’s proposed presentation on campus, the UCO Student Association (UCOSA)—which invited Mr. Ham to speak at UCO—made the decision, via a vote of its Executive Committee, to rescind the invitation. In a statement, the UCOSA president said there was some concern and pressure expressed to him by other students and student groups that influenced that decision.

The university may advise, but does not direct, the activities of UCOSA. In fact, in the spirit of the UCO policy on freedom of expression, the university President, Provost and the Vice President of Student Affairs supported and did not deny the proposal to bring Mr. Ham to campus to encourage conversation and debate of diverse perspectives. This was prior to UCOSA’s cancellation of the invitation to Mr. Ham.

This experience reinforces our resolve to make our campus a welcoming environment for the civil expression of diverse thought.  And, we will continue to support the student-centered culture we value and promote at the University of Central Oklahoma." - UCO said.