The student news site of Diablo Valley College.

The Inquirer

The student news site of Diablo Valley College.

The Inquirer

The student news site of Diablo Valley College.

The Inquirer

Anti-Abortion Demonstration Sparks Free Speech Debate on Campus 

Alyssa DuFresne

Sarah Truex did not expect to see anti-abortion banners depicting bloody, aborted fetuses when she crossed the Common area on the Pleasant Hill campus earlier this month. 

“Historically speaking, women have been forced to go through pregnancies they did not want to go through in the service of pro-life,” Truex said, responding to the scene that shocked students and staff at Diablo Valley College on Oct. 2.  

“Giving birth terrifies me. I can’t imagine someone forcing me to carry out a pregnancy,” Truex told The Inquirer.

“This [anti-abortion demonstration] is maybe my worst fear come alive,” she added. 

The graphic banners — accompanied by captions like “Is this inhumane?” — were part of a demonstration by a pro-life organization known as Project Truth. As part of its regular tour of California colleges, the group passed out brochures and engaged in discussions with DVC students at the heart of the campus from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 2 and 3. 

During that time, two to three campus police officers patrolled the Commons to keep the peace. Many Project Truth members donned Go-Pro cameras, which they said functioned primarily as a deterrent against physical assault, but also provided footage for their social media outreach and training purposes. 

“We’ll stop talking to people if they’re just looking for a fight,” said Sophie Scholl, a representative of the group. “We’re not interested in that, because that’s just not productive.

“Everybody has a right to their own opinion,” added Scholl, “but we’re here to engage in free speech and talk about what our opinions are.”

The protest highlighted how sensitive and complex the issue of free speech can be on college campuses.

One student passing through the Commons expressed emotional distress upon seeing the images, and asked a campus police officer if the school could remove the posters from campus. But the officer, who gave only his last name, Dhungel, in an interview with The Inquirer, told the student such action wasn’t permitted because Project Truth was acting within its First Amendment rights.

Project Truth members admitted that their grotesque banners were intended to provoke discussions with students about abortion.

“We understand that these are graphic pictures. We should all be bothered when we see pictures of dead babies. That should disturb us,” said Scholl. “We’re not looking for that disturbance… but it’s a natural response.” 

However, many students and faculty found that the posters had the exact opposite effect. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said the bloody imagery and captions immediately discouraged her from engaging with the group or seriously considering their argument, because she considered it “very guilt-trippy” and offensive to people who choose to get abortions.

While she recognized the Project Truth activity was protected as free speech, she questioned the ethics of displaying such images on a college campus, where they might serve as a reminder of past trauma.

In response to staff complaints on the second day of the demonstration, DVC President Susan Lamb sent an email to the entire faculty in which she wrote, “These images and the messages that they are distributing are VERY disturbing, and I am very upset that there is nothing that we can do to prevent them from coming on campus.”

Lamb added that the members of the group “have their own agenda, which I believe is to cause as much disruption as possible.”

But according to Officer Dhungel, the demonstrators were “very professional and cordial,” and said he had not witnessed any verbal or physical harassment from either Project Truth members or students.


Students debate free speech

Truex, a DVC student who identifies with the pro-choice movement, said her upbringing in a religious household provided her some insight into the moral component of the anti-abortion cause.

“I would expect [Project Truth members] to be very kind and very nice, because they’re religious and they’re advocating for something they strongly believe in,” she said.

“They don’t believe this because they want to hurt people. They [advocate] this because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”

But that didn’t mean Truex shared their beliefs or felt the demonstration was appropriate on a college campus.

“I have done research on both sides for assignments in class, and I still don’t agree with it,” she said. “It’s outdated. We know what’s going on, and it’s anti-women’s rights.” 

But Project Truth member Scholl said abortion wasn’t a matter of women’s rights, but the rights of unborn human beings. “As culture we’re saying, ‘my body, my choice’ [and] ‘reproductive rights,’ so we use language that clouds judgment, that clouds truth,” she said.

The group’s efforts to engage with students about their beliefs drew attention from the moment they arrived on campus.

In a letter to the president, which was published by The Inquirer on Oct. 4, DVC student Kaila Knudsen said she considered the demonstration “a direct attack on all female students [and] students who do not subscribe to this particular subset of religious beliefs,” among other demographics.

Although Project Truth claimed it promoted inclusive dialogue and respected religious diversity, some students complained that its political message tended to appeal to a limited Christian demographic and therefore conflicted with the constitutional separation of church and state.

Scholl explained that Project Truth takes a bottom-up approach to the anti-abortion movement. “We do want abortion to become unthinkable, [and] we do want it to become fully abolished, fully illegal,” she said.

Andre, a senior at DVC who identifies as pro-choice, said he thought advocating abortion bans are the equivalent of “forcing a religion on people.”

Another DVC student, Zuhra, said her experience talking with some of the Project Truth members wasn’t exactly smooth. 

“The guy didn’t really let me [speak],” she said. “He kept interrupting.”

Zuhra grew up Muslim and said she considers herself pro-choice because, although she believes abortion should not be used as a solution to unprotected sex or promiscuous behavior, she doesn’t support an all-out ban. 

Numerous scenarios could justify an abortion, Zuhra said, including cases of sexual assault, paternal negligence, and financial insecurity.

She said when a Project Truth member asked her about her religious beliefs, he seemed to automatically assume she was pro-life due to her affiliation with Islam, and tried to support his argument about abortion with inaccurate references to the Quran. 

“But I know [the Quran] better than he does,” said Zuhra, adding that when she tried to explain that he was mistaken, he “got kind of mad… about it.”

Scholl said Project Truth had received mixed responses from the student body, and that some students even thanked the group for bringing its advocacy onto campus.

On the second day of the demonstration, Tuesday, Oct. 3, at around 1:45 p.m., five students stood in a semi-circle around two Project Truth members debating the merits of the pro-choice movement.

One young man, James Speer, quoted a study from the National Library of Medicine that demonstrated it is statistically safer to have an abortion than childbirth.

Referring to the Project Truth brochure, Speer said, “It just seems like you guys come out here with a lot of quotes and not a lot of evidence to back it up.”

As they debated about objective truth and the scientific definition of a human life, Tanya, another member of Project Truth, told the group that human life begins at the moment of conception, and that many people disagree with this in order to evade the responsibility of protecting the fetus in the same way as any other human being.

As she finished speaking, a student making their way to class yelled from a distance, “You’re prejudiced!” The student then added, “You don’t belong here!”

Speer responded, “That’s not nice,” and returned his attention to Tanya and the other students. “You don’t have to be rude to have an open discussion like this,” he said.

As the organization began to depart from campus, the students and Project Truth members thanked one another for their civil dialogue and a number of them shook hands.


College Response

But the debate was far from over.

Student Services Procedure 3025 mandates that, so long as the group did not obstruct students’ access to classrooms or facilities, it had a right to set up a distribution table anywhere on campus after submitting a Use of Facilities form to the Student Life Office and providing a copy of the materials it intended to distribute.

According to Student Life Manager Todd Farr, Project Truth submitted its Use of Facilities form on the morning of Oct. 2 before the Student Life Office opened, so he was unaware of the group’s presence until after it had assembled the anti-abortion images in the Commons.

Lamb acknowledged, “We didn’t have a previous notice that these individuals were going to be here… Unfortunately they came right when I was in a meeting.”

Farr said once he received the form, he immediately alerted his supervisors, who stationed sandwich boards around the Commons to inform students that an off-campus group was  participating in a “free speech activity.” The message encouraged any students with differing views to “consider alternative pathways on campus.”

In her letter to the president, Kaila Knudsen complained that these measures weren’t sufficient to ensure the safety and comfort of students. “Being told… that I should simply avoid a threat that has been positioned directly in my path is concerning,” she wrote.

Vice President Vicki Ferguson later told The Inquirer, “If we would have known in advance, we definitely would have reacted and prepared the campus much better and much sooner than we did.” 

Just minutes before the group left the campus on Monday afternoon, the college administration sent a campus-wide email that explained the Student Services Procedure 3025 and directed students to the proper channels to voice complaints, report suspicious activity, and access counseling resources.

On the second day of the demonstration, the signs surrounding the Commons were wreathed with caution tape and accompanied by faculty members who communicated the avoidance strategy to approaching students.

That same day, the administration sent a follow-up email and text message to all students and faculty, cautioning them to anticipate the group’s presence on campus “for the remainder of the week.” According to Farr, Project Truth had only designated Monday and Tuesday for its visit, but the administration wanted to provide an extra level of caution in case the group extended its stay by submitting another Use of Facilities form on Wednesday morning.

The following week, on Oct. 10, President Lamb addressed students’ concerns about the group’s visit in a Q&A session with Associated Students of Diablo Valley College (ASDVC) members.

Lamb suggested the late notice from Project Truth was intentional, and said it wasn’t the first time the group had visited campus. She said its last visit to DVC, in April 2018, triggered a student counterprotest during which one student sliced a banner in half with a pocket knife and was subsequently arrested for vandalism.

Lamb told ASDVC that the school replaced the banner so as to avoid a potential lawsuit for violating the group’s right to free expression.

At the meeting, members of the student government requested that the college administration alter the Student Services Procedure to establish a minimum advance notice period for off-campus advocacy groups. But Lamb explained the college cannot revise the document because it is implemented at the district level.

However, Lamb told the student government she is willing to collaborate with the Contra Costa Community College District to look at ways to potentially create separate protocols for students and public organizations, which would establish an advance notice requirement for off-campus groups while retaining flexibility for spontaneous student club activities.

Student government members cited Student Services Procedure 3025, which prohibits “public expression which is obscene, libelous or slanderous according to current legal standards,” and asked Lamb if students could petition to remove the banners on account of obscenity.

That option seemed unlikely, said the president.

“Proving something is obscene is very difficult to do,” Lamb said, adding that other California colleges have already tried to deny entrance to Project Truth or remove their materials on account of their content, but failed.

For Vice President Ferguson, “that’s the hard part of administration.” 

“Although [certain speech] may be offensive to some, it may not be offensive to others,” Ferguson said. The power to classify something as obscene ultimately lies in the state and federal courts, which uses a criteria known as the Miller Test, she said.

Lamb agreed that the situation left administrators with their hands tied. 

“[Free speech] is what brings a diversity of ideas here in the U.S. and it’s got strengths in that regard,” said Lamb, “but it also, at times, makes us very uncomfortable.”

She emphasized the importance of fostering a safe and supportive learning environment, and encouraged students to practice avoidance strategies or exercise their own right to free speech by staging a counter-demonstration.

“I can’t protect you from… these nasty things that happen,” Lamb told the students at the Oct. 10 meeting, “but we are here to support you in the moment, and that is what community is about.”

In an email sent to the school faculty on Oct. 11, President Lamb announced a renewed commitment to virtual “coffee chats” and in-person “listening circles” to provide spaces for students and faculty members to voice their concerns, questions, and suggestions for the college.

View Comments (6)
About the Contributor
Alyssa DuFresne, Editor in chief

Comments (6)

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  • J

    Jack CornettOct 25, 2023 at 10:24 pm

    Its not “pro life” its government enforced pregnancy which is not OK no matter how alive you think the fetus is. Civilized debate never takes priority over the health and safety of people, so only when everybody has access to abortion can this be discussed. Until everybody has access to abortion the focus should be on making that happen, not debating if it should happen.

  • D

    Dana SarozekOct 25, 2023 at 9:22 am

    Equality should be our goal as a free people. The right a woman has to make decisions on her body must be upheld across our entire country.

    • J

      John EdgarOct 26, 2023 at 10:57 am

      Dana, I would agree with your statement that equality should be our goal.
      Yet are all humans created equal and their lives protected when we allow or even encourage a mother to kill her offspring? Equal rights to life should include all humans no matter their age, or size. The body of all humans should be considered in giving rights over what we do with our bodies.

      • C

        CaseyOct 26, 2023 at 8:14 pm

        Hi John,
        All humans are created equal, but their lives are not all equally protected depending upon what activities they choose to engage in. For example, if an adult man attempted to hijack my body for 9 months, cause permanent irreversible changes to my body and its functioning, and severely limit the choices I could make or activities I could engage in under threat of force he would not enjoy the same rights to life as I would. I would be able to use deadly force against him because that would be a hostage situation. We would still both be humans created equally, but my right to autonomy would eclipse his efforts to hold me hostage. I’m not sure why this situation is any different if that grown man was a child, baby, fetus, or zygote because as you say – equal rights should apply no matter size or stage in life. I would feel the same way if you were attempting to force me to undergo the above listed changes, even if on behalf of another person, child, baby, fetus, or zygote because the only way to do that is under threat of force. You cannot forcibly hold hostage or physically alter other’s bodies because of your own opinions.

        • J

          JonahOct 27, 2023 at 2:15 pm

          Hi Casey,

          I would have to disagree with your analogy; the comparison of an unborn infant to an adult is far-fetched, to say the least. The blaring difference is that the adult would know exactly what he/she is doing, and he/she would undoubtedly be acting out of malice and evil intent. The unborn baby, on the other hand, is completely innocent; he/she is not acting with ill feelings in a deliberate attempt to harm the mother. A law court would treat a mass shooter (premeditated murder) much, much differently than, say, a toddler who unknowingly shot someone with a gun his/her parents left lying around (manslaughter at the most?).

          I would agree with you that our rights end/should be limited when they encroach on the rights of others. However, I would also encourage considering that in another light – does a person’s right to pursue happiness and comfort trump another human being’s right to life? I believe most if not all would agree that the right to life is more fundamental and essential than the right to comfort. Then the picture becomes very different; it is no longer a matter of convenience, but it becomes a matter of protecting the basic right to life of helpless and innocent human beings.

          I’m not saying that I think abortions should be illegal; it should never be the first choice, but there are cases where I think it would be acceptable (e.g. the mother’s life is in danger and the baby would die anyways). I am simply disagreeing with the common misconception that abortions are (morally) acceptable or even good and are protected by American ideals.

      • T

        Tiffany QOct 26, 2023 at 8:56 pm

        Hi John,
        I can see where you are coming from, but I think that it is important that we recognize that we are not encouraging mothers to kill their babies. It is never easy for a pregnant woman to make such a decision but there are instances where it is something to consider. I think it is important to understand that the subject is not black and white, there are many instances where I would agree that someone should not get an abortion, but there are also instances where I support the decision of someone to turn to abortion. We need to be able to recognize that there are many factors when it comes to abortion that there is no single scenario that applies to everyone.