Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Conservative Portland Students Outraged That They Can’t Retraumatize Combat Vets

So this tale of “liberal speech suppression” here in Portland, Oregon (at PSU) is currently pinging around the conservative blogosphere/echo chamber, and even made it to the Fox News network:

The story has now been retold at College Insurrection, Accuracy in Academia, The Libertarian Republic, this Oklahoma City Fox affiliate, this Las Vegas talk radio station,, on Reddit, at a mess of lesser-trafficked blogs, and even on some non-partisan & non-Fox-affiliated sites:, University Business and this Alabama ABC affiliate.

Best I can tell, the story hasn’t been picked up by any major talk radio hosts.  I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

The student, Christian Britschgi, and his fellow travelers are spinning the tale as a story of liberal academics suppressing conservative speech in order to shield fragile liberal students from the trauma of experiencing opinions they don’t like.  This is a common meme in conservative circles – if anyone points out that ad hominem attack and invective aren’t really intelligent methods of debate, they often get shouted down for being a wussy liberal crybaby. 

It seems pretty dang likely that the reality of what happened is far more nuanced than the story that Christian Britschgi is telling.  I'd like to see local media shed light on things.  Oregonian?  Willamette Week?  Anyone? 

I searched extensively for a more reliable, unbiased, LOCAL recounting of the story, but have come up empty-handed thus far.

As a former college political org leader on a MUCH smaller campus, one aspect of his story struck me as deserving greater examination.  Were Britschgi and his friend literally trying to arrange to table *now-ish* because they had a few spare hours?  Even at my undergrad campus of 1,200, 20-some years ago, you usually had to arrange for these things days ahead of time.

If the story is accurate as Britschgi tells it, and they weren't just shut down because they were trying to do something on the fly, this was a Portland State U FAIL.  Universities cannot sanitize students' speech in order to avoid triggering anybody, and really shouldn't be attempting to do so.  As someone who's experienced PTSD, when you're in it, anything and everything can be triggering.  JOYOUS FRIGGING SONGS WERE TRIGGERING sometimes.  It definitely sucks, but it's on those of us experiencing PTSD to do what we need to do to recover so we can function in society, not on society to become a grey, silent place so as to avoid triggering us.

There is a BUT coming, though.  It seems quite likely that the faculty & admin were NOT concerned about the message, but with graphic – if cartoonish – imagery on one of their posters – imagery that would be more likely to impact combat veterans with PTSD than others.   

Here's the poster. You be the judge.
                                                                      [MORE …]

The faculty and administrator who Britschgi talked with could have reasonably advised the students that the gunshot-in-progress poster might cause distress to fellow students who’ve witnessed gun-related deaths, especially recent combat vets struggling with PTSD.  If they'd framed it that way, one would hope that College Republicans – as folks who usually declare great respect and admiration for folks who serve and have served in our military – would be persuaded to rethink using that particular image. 

To be honest, elements of the story, as Britschgi tells it himself, gives me the impression that the faculty and administrator involved did actually try to explain the concept of PTSD to these kids, and tried to inform them that some (not all, or even most, but some) folks with PTSD can have violent reactions if triggered.  I wonder whether he heard them as telling him he couldn’t demonstrate because other people might get mad and attack him because that’s the story that fit neatly into his preconceived narrative.  Again: Portland media!  Where are you?

It’s a tougher call as to whether faculty/admins should ban students’ use of graphic imagery in expressing political views on campus.  My default setting is to say that they shouldn’t, and if they’re at a state school – as PSU is – they probably can’t under the First Amendment.

Faculty/admin could, however, advise demonstrating students of the possible negative effect that a graphic image could have on others.  They could further (accurately) warn that the demonstrators could be held liable in a court of law if their action harmed another. 

I did wonder how much (if any) of the faculty/admin response was driven by a desire to shield the university from liability in the event that someone’s PTSD was triggered and things went awry.  If the university could bear any liability for such a thing (and I’m not yet persuaded that it could), I’d think that the problem could be rectified by requiring that demonstrating students fully indemnify the university against any harm arising from the students’ decision to wave their “murder-in-progress” placard about the campus grounds.

If things had been addressed differently, perhaps the students could have had their demonstration with no modification of their message and little to no modification of the means used to convey that message.  But then this story wouldn't be making the rounds, feeding the conservative persecution narrative that fascist liberals are suppressing speech left and right. 

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