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Student says free speech issue overblown

Student organizers of a free-speech demonstration held earlier this month at Southern Oregon University say the incident has been misinterpreted by many people and described the university’s administration as “courteous and conciliatory.”

“It saddens us to see how many people have taken our actions as a carte blanche to attach their politics onto our campus issue,” said SOU senior Dylan Bloom, in a statement on behalf of the university’s Students for Concealed Carry.

Bloom was one of six students handing out copies of the Constitution and collecting signatures for a petition against SOU’s so-called "free speech zone" on Tuesday, Oct. 7.

The students intentionally positioned themselves in a residential part of campus near McLoughlin Hall and the Greensprings Complex and were approached by several university officials who asked them to move to the free speech zone located outside Stevenson Union.

In 2013, Bloom said, he and other students were told by the director of housing that they couldn't campaign for student government positions or host a voter-registration drive outside the residence halls and were directed to the free speech zone.

Bloom said university administrators have since clarified that the free speech zone is a Stevenson Union guideline and not a university policy.

The guideline, Bloom said, was created by the student center in 2003 in response to Iraq War demonstrations.

“The Stevenson Union adopted the policy so protesters couldn't come into the building and interrupt educational activities,” Bloom said.

The six students involved — three are currently members of SOU’s student government — are meeting with the university's provost and associate provost today, Tuesday, to discuss how the students and university should proceed. The incident garnered national attention and was covered by Fox News, The Washington Times, United Press International, Examiner.com and other media outlets after appearing on the Campus Reform website.

“On our part, we feel we have responsibility to inform the campus and community at large that the university has reached out to us, recognizes changes need to be made, and that we will actively be involved in the wording of new policy,” Bloom said.

He added that he was grateful for the community’s support but disappointed with how the incident was blown out of proportion at the national level and how “people misconstrued what our intentions were.”

Since the incident, people have posted negative and sometimes hostile comments on the university’s Facebook page, left voicemails for university officials with “some colorful language” and threatened to bring protesters to campus, said Ryan Brown, the university’s spokesman.

“But so far we haven’t seen any of those groups,” he said.

Because the students involved  were members of Students for Concealed Carry, the incident also drew the attention of gun groups.

One man told a local news station that he wanted to see how the university would react when he and others showed up on campus with AR-15s strapped to their backs, Bloom said.

Another man sent the SCC group a Facebook message saying he was organizing a coalition of people to come on campus in support of concealed carry.

“We informed him via a message that we appreciated the support of the community but that his demonstration would detract from our ultimate goal,” Bloom said.

“Although we are Students for Concealed Carry, the issue we are addressing is free speech and not concealed carry on campus,” he added.

Reach Main Tribune reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.