Portland arts venue protest highlights free speech conundrum

Protesters target venue after Portland arts organization announces it will host controversial speaker Jordan Peterson.

Share this article!

They are going after the wrong people.

Portland’5 Center for the Arts, the organization in question, cannot legally bar Peterson from speaking, says executive director Robyn Williams. “We could have the most hate-filled, horrible entity in the world book our buildings,” she says, “and we’re legally required to let them in.”

In the eyes of some Portlanders, “hate-filled” is an apt descriptor for Peterson. The Canadian academic was the subject of a recent New York Times profile, in which he advocated for “enforced monogamy,” and said “the masculine spirit is under assault” from feminism and the #MeToo movement.  

DrPeterson 438x400

Yet public venues can’t turn away presenters for the content of their talk.

The Center for the Arts operates five venues that are owned and managed by the city of Portland and Metro’s Exposition Recreation Commission. As taxpayer funded entitites, they must offer open dates to all takers, be it the Oregon Symphony or Jordan Peterson.

Peterson is slated to talk at the Keller Auditorium, one of the venues.

“You really don’t want elected officials picking and choosing who gets a venue based on their political views,” says Metro spokesman Jim Middaugh.

Think of public venues like newspapers, protected by a constitutional right to free speech. Both act as vessels for competing opinions. Newspapers have limited word counts; venues have limited calendar days.

But the goal (in theory anyway), is to ensure opposing ideas get equal space, as long as nobody makes direct threats or shouts “fire” in a crowded theater.

Oregon free speech protections go further than the federal government’s. According to Section 8 of the State Constitution, “no law shall be passed” to restrict speech “on any subject whatsoever.”

Event promoter Live Nation might be a more appropriate target for the Peterson protests. The Beverly Hills-based company booked Peterson at Keller Auditorium — and will profit from the $35 to $200 tickets.

Or protestors can go after Peterson himself. The same clause that protects a speaker’s speech protects protesters’ rights to give them hell about it.

Middaugh says Metro provides space outside its venues for just that purpose — peaceful, but spirited, demonstrations against events.

Expect to see a few of those come June 25.

 Click here to subscribe to Oregon Business.




Latest from Caleb Diehl