Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.4.10

Taming the Beast
Where now with Pacifica Forum?
By Joseph A. Lieberman

Depending on your point of view, the past two weeks of continuing controversies surrounding Pacifica Forum (PF) could be characterized as a healthy discussion of free speech vs. hate speech, or as sharp discord marked by acrimonious divisions.

At an overflowing five-hour ASUO Senate meeting on Jan. 27, a resolution to ban PF from campus was rejected following impassioned speeches for and against, pitting those whose primary consideration is campus safety against others who were concerned about First Amendment rights. Proponents vowed to persist in refining the resolution until it becomes acceptable to the majority.

In a Jan. 23 editorial, The Register-Guard suggested that PF should remain in the Erb Memorial Union because (a) UO emeritus faculty practices “should be applied evenhandedly,” and (b) students can better choose whether to deprive PF members of the hostile attention they feed upon, or to more strongly challenge PF “presentations that egregiously insult historical memory.” Last week, EW’s Slant supported a similar theme.

On Jan. 29, Charles Martinez, UO vice president for institutional equity and diversity, spoke on Jefferson Public Radio’s (JPR) Jefferson Exchange, saying that recent PF program cancellations were “absolutely incidental scheduling conflicts,” and not a change in policy. On Sunday, PF announced that member Barry Sommer will present “A Critical Analysis of the Holocaust Denial Industry by a Jew” on Feb. 12 at Agate Hall. It should be noted that while Mr. Sommer, who hosts CTV’s weekly Islam Today program, was born ethnically Jewish, he converted to evangelical Christianity 15 years ago. “ I wanted to cover my bases,” he said this week. “I practice the best of both Judaism and Christianity.”

During the radio show, Martinez added that the administration is “very assertively” reexamining the practice of allowing emeritus professors such as 94-year-old PF founder Orval Etter (and outsiders who may cling to their coattails) the unrestricted use of campus facilities. He later qualified that, saying the UO’s “core mission of engaging in intellectual inquiry” is a responsibility “we bestow on our faculty who are teaching,” not something the UO entrusts to “outside groups.”

Martinez expects further protests by outraged students having “a right to express their opinions,” and stated there was significant concern over the kind of “hate-mongering” that “threatens the inclusiveness of our community, and violates the norms that we espouse and our values.” He called this particular concern “a critical issue.”

Martinez was followed on JPR by Billy Rojas, PF’s spokesman by process of elimination, and later by Michael Williams from Eugene’s Anti-Hate Task Force. One caller suggested encouraging more students and responsible citizens to “join” the open, ad hoc membership of PF in order to influence its schedule of speakers and agenda, which Rojas claimed is always determined by group consensus. However, in the past, a small core-member “planning committee” has actually decided these matters, and Etter alone has final veto power. 

Student Cimmeron Gillespie suggested something similar regarding the protesters all being temporary members during the Jan. 21 PF meeting as a kind of jest, but right now it is looking like a truly excellent idea. Could it work? What many observers have overlooked is that PF is a beast with no brain. There is no constantly functioning leader. Etter is not senile, but slowly declining (we should all be so lucky at his age). Currently, PF “regulars” seldom number more than a dozen. Unified in their admiration of Etter and defense of PF, they are often at odds with one other on important issues. A mere 20 new “members” could redirect PF’s future, determine pertinent topics, initiate moral guidelines that respect the community while preserving free speech, and peaceably end this stand-off.