When Lisa Ebiner Gavit, president of Students for Life at the University of Southern California, arrived at the famous Tommy Trojan statue last month to take down her organization’s display commemorating the 41st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, she came across an unexpected scene.
“We saw two girls bending down over the display,” she recalls. “From a distance we couldn’t tell what was going on, but as I got closer I saw that all the posters were gone.” They had been ripped off the statue and “crumpled up into a ball.”
Gavit (right, above), a senior majoring in philosophy, immediately recognized one of the vandals as one of USC’s leading pro-choice activists.
USC Students for Life had been given official permission to place the posters at the statue, an iconic landmark in the center of the stately campus in south central Los Angeles. That did not deter the students tearing up the display.
“The girl who I had recognized walked away pretty soon after that, but the other girl was so angry. She was yelling at us; I don’t even remember what she said, I just remember a string of f-words, and finally she walked away too.”
She eventually came back, Gavit says, and apologized. She had found the pro-life posters offensive, she explained, particularly a poster suggesting that women who had abortions needed “healing.”
“She was clearly hurting and I think she needed to just spill all her views on the topic, and so I let her,” Gavit recalls.
Students at USC, like students at other college campuses across the nation, are rarely exposed to conservative views, on abortion or other issues. When conservative columnist Ann Coulter spoke on campus last November, she was greeted by a small demonstration protesting against her “hate speech.”
Jennifer Massey, president of the USC College Republicans, says that Gavit has an especially difficult task.
“To be the president of a Students for Life group on any campus these days takes an amazing amount of courage,” she told Breitbart News. “I respect Lisa and she is one of the sweetest humanists I know.”
Massey adds that “it doesn’t surprise me that students think it is OK to mistreat students they do not agree with…..What is a happening at USC and other colleges across the country is a microcosm of what’s happening in America. It is about respecting other people’s beliefs and opinions.”
When I met Gavit on campus this week, volunteers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were canvassing near the statue: “Do you support a woman’s right to choose?” one called out to passers-by.
So Gavit was not surprised to find that the pro-life display had stirred controversy, even though it was hardly provocative in itself.
There were no photographs of newly-aborted fetuses. Instead, there were tame, if thought-provoking, messages, such as a poster reading “Choose Life,” another offering post-abortion crisis counseling, and an array of 275 white hearts to represent the number of abortions taking place in the U.S. every two hours.
What shocked Gavit was the response–not just from students, but from faculty as well.
As she told the College Fix, her women’s studies professor mocked the pro-life display in front of a group of students before class–until Gavit told her she was responsible for it.
The vandalism was the culmination of a day of abuse. Though the conversation with one of the vandals had ended well, Gavit contacted the USC administration, which investigated, apologized to Gavit, and asked if she wanted to file a formal complaint.
Gavit decided not to push for punishment. Instead, she told Breitbart News, she decided to meet with the pro-choice activist (whom she prefers not to name) and discuss Students for Life’s views.
“I thought it would be much more productive to have a conversation with the girl who I had recognized rather than pressing charges,” she says.
They met and had a frank discussion. “At the end of the conversation she said it had been one of the most important conversations she had ever had in her life,” Gavit says.
“I get the feeling that while she’s familiar with all of our pro-life arguments, she had never sat down and had a conversation with a passionate pro-lifer. So I am really glad we were able to have that talk. I think it was successful.”
Dr. Ainsley Carry, vice provost for Student Affairs, told Breitbart News:
“USC greatly values the right to freedom of speech and expression that every member of our academic community enjoys. This value makes our community a thriving learning environment committed to crucial inquiry and full and civil discussion of controversial topics. Destruction of a group’s property, especially when the effect is to inhibit free speech, is unacceptable. We have contacted the students who damaged the display to ensure they understand that such conduct is contrary to our shared values. We are working with student leaders to promote the candid and constructive discussion fundamental to academic life.”
Yet wouldn’t the university’s response have been harsher if the shoe had been on the other foot–if pro-life students had vandalized a pro-choice display?
After all, even the student newspapers, the Daily Trojan (print) and Neon Tommy (online), declined to cover the vandalism. Aren’t pro-life students victims of a double standard?
Gavit shrugs: perhaps, she says. But to her, that is not the point. Reaching out and exposing other students to the pro-life argument is the goal.
“One of our club’s major goals is to get people thinking about the issue of abortion. I’ve found that because abortion is such a polarizing issue, a lot of people avoid thinking about it, or they form such a weak opinion which has no basis in fact or sound arguments.
“We want to make people come into contact with rational pro-life arguments, and we want them to really wrestle with the issue and see the validity of our arguments.”
It’s the high road–and for Gavit, it’s more than about free speech. It’s about changing minds–and hearts.