Freedumb of Speech
Racist anti-abortion posters draw student ire
By Jes Abeita
University of New Mexico freshman Stephanie Padilla says she considers herself an abortion opponent and is not easily offended by slurs or stereotypes. Still, she “was shocked and confused” by posters on display near UNM's Zimmerman Library on the morning of Monday, Sept. 17.
The poster that caught her attention showed an aborted fetus superimposed over a Native American medicine wheel with eagle feathers. The text on the poster read “Abortion extinction, color the redman gone. Today an Indian boy was killed the Indian way, hey ya hey.”
“We did not check the posters for content. We’ve never had any problems like this before.”
Samantha Serrano, CAFE’s director
Another poster depicted a pregnant African-American woman with a noose superimposed over her belly. That poster referred to abortion as “Black genocide” and “womb lynching,” and stated: “Doctors kill more Blacks every four days than the Klan did in 150 years.” Padilla took a picture with her phone and uploaded it to her Facebook page.
Tyrell Skeet was on his way to class, too. He walked past the information table sponsored by the student group Catholic Apologetics Fellowship and Evangelism (CAFE) on behalf of 40 Days for Life, a national anti-abortion campaign. The table was set up next to the stairs leading from the Student Union Building to the plaza in front of Zimmerman Library. There, the posters that had shocked Padilla were being displayed.
Skeet, who studied visual arts at Brown before attending UNM, says he paused to look at the display. “The posters are always colorful,” he says. “They’re always very, very hyperbolic.”
Then he says he spotted the racially charged images and was stopped in his tracks. He says he never thought he’d see racial stereotypes about Native Americans used to promote anti-abortion views. He was taking pictures of the posters when a man approached him and asked if he liked the designs. “I really didn’t like it, but I didn’t want to push him to the point where it became out of control between me and him.” After a few moments spent chatting with the women behind the table, Skeet posted the images to his Facebook page and went to class.
“The Native American community will no longer let their culture and identity be appropriated to further the agenda of outside interests.”
Lane Bird Bear, Kiva Club president
Padilla and Skeet, like 13.5 percent of students at the University of New Mexico, are Native American. And like many others on campus who viewed the offensive images, they assumed the posters were part of the official display set up by the two anti-abortion groups.
Liz Turner, the Albuquerque representative for 40 Days for Life, says a man not affiliated with her organization brought the posters and set them up at the edge of her display. She says she didn’t know the man and didn’t want to give his name so he wouldn’t get “swamped” by the fallout from the signs.
Turner and Samantha Serrano, CAFE’s director, say neither organization had any idea about the images portrayed on the signs at the edge of their display Monday—even though it would seem the man who set them up was already known for using the confrontational images.
Serrano says the man in question is a regular at protests in Albuquerque. She says he probably learned of the 40 Days event through his involvement in the anti-abortion movement and wanted to take part, “so he brought his signs, which are what he usually displays in front of the abortion clinics.”
Turner says no one responsible for the table previewed the posters before their maker put them alongside the 40 Days display. “I just assumed they were appropriate,” she says. Serrano adds: “We did not check the posters for content. We’ve never had any problems like this before.”
Both women say as soon as passersby alerted the group at the table to the offensive content, the posters were removed, and the man who made them was asked to leave.
Padilla says she doesn’t believe Turner and others manning the table were unaware of the images, she says. “I think it’s an excuse. It doesn’t make sense that they didn’t look at them.”
The man seemed like a member of the group because the people at the 40 Days table “seemed to know him,” Skeet says. They also told Skeet that the man he had spoken to was the one who made the posters.
Speech v. Speech
Debbie Morris is the director of the UNM Student Activities Center. All student groups who want to hold a demonstration on campus go must through her office.
The UNM Student Handbook’s policy on freedom of expression and dissent places no limits on speech—as long as UNM property isn’t being damaged. Enforcing limits beyond that on a public college campus would be nearly impossible, Morris says. The best counter to hurtful speech is more speech, she added.
Morris was “very proud” of what happened after the posters appeared, she says. Within 24 hours, representatives from the Kiva Club applied for a table across the plaza from the spot occupied by 40 Days to protest the group’s presence on campus.
The Kiva Club is one of the oldest student organizations at UNM. Its stated purpose is to highlight issues affecting the Native American community and to provide support for Native American students on campus.
Many of the people who showed up for the protest had seen Padilla’s and Skeet’s photos reposted on the Kiva Club’s Facebook page. Club members and others gathered Wednesday morning, signs at the ready.
Serrano approached from across the plaza. As she listened, Kiva Club President Lane Bird Bear explained: “The Native American community will no longer let their culture and identity be appropriated to further the agenda of outside interests.” Regarding abortion debate itself, Bird Bear said, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. We’re standing neutral on the issue.”
Serrano told Bird Bear and the demonstrators she took responsibility for the posters. “I just want to extend my heartfelt apology,” she said on behalf of CAFE, while Turner of 40 Days for Life waited back near the group's table.
Padilla says an apology was owed, “not just to the students, but to the Native American community as a whole.”
Skeet disagrees. “Personally, I really don’t care if they apologize or not,” he says. When groups try to tie the genocide faced by Native Americans to abortion, “I think their message gets lost.”
Plus, the outreach effort can backfire. “I’m still pro-life,” Padilla says. “I’m still against abortion, but I won’t support that organization.”
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