A group seen to have pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic sympathies could soon be booted from the University of Oregon’s student union building, if not the campus altogether.
Meetings of the Pacifica Forum, a group that on its Web site describes itself as offering “information and perspective on the issues of war and peace, militarism and pacifism, violence and non-violence,” have been held in the Eugene institution’s Erb Memorial Union for years.
But it was news of a “Sieg Heil” salute, performed at a Dec. 11 meeting advertised as “An Insider’s View of America’s Radical Right” and led by a member of the National Socialist Movement, that has driven students to protest and administrators to reconsider the policy that lets Pacifica meet on campus in the first place.
While Pacifica has faced plenty of criticism since its founding in the early 1990s by now 94-year-old Orval Etter, an associate professor emeritus, the Nazi salute and the rest of the content of that meeting have galvanized students to speak out against what the group's members are saying and where they’re saying it.
“It’s not a new situation,” said Charles Martinez, Oregon's vice president of institutional equity and diversity. “They’ve been meeting on campus for a long period of time.” The difference, he said, is that the group’s meetings have begun to include “a lot of very overt hateful comments and gestures that have gotten to students to the point where they felt the need to take action.”
A few days after students returned from winter break, a few dozen students and community protesters sat in on the forum’s Jan. 8 meeting. By the group’s next meeting, on Jan. 15, a crowd of 300 interrupted a scheduled debate on the symbolism of the swastika, estimated the Daily Emerald, the student newspaper
In the week between those two meetings, Devon Schlotterbeck, a sophomore, founded a Facebook group to rally protesters. Most of the nearly 2,000 members of the group, “UofO students and community members against the Pacifica Forum,” appear to be students or alumni. Another protest is scheduled for Friday, to coincide with a Pacifica meeting on “Neo-Communism and the Anti-Hate Task Force,” a group that organized in opposition to Pacifica.
On its Web site, Pacifica described the Jan. 15 session as a "meeting on 'The Symbolism of the Swastika' (the point being that the swastika is a symbol in diverse cultures, not just Nazism)" that garnered so many protesters because, "by this time, Facebook had been employed to spread disinformation about the Forum, and hundreds turned out to protest."
Administrators, Martinez said, face the “dilemma that on the one hand we believe and hold very close this idea that institutions of higher education like ours and others must be a bastion of free speech, while at the same time engaging in scholarly review and … true academic inquiry.”
Pacifica is able to use campus space for its event because of Etter’s affiliation with the university, under a policy that gives retired faculty and staff access to certain facilities and services. Provost James C. Bean and other academic leaders are now “undertaking a very careful consideration of those policies and practices,” Martinez said. “They’re tackling a narrow set of issues: free use of space by retired professors and university employees.”
Emma Kallaway, president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, said her group, the student government, respects that privilege but hopes to see the meetings moved out of the student union. “The EMU is home to groups like the Women’s Center, the Black Student Union and the LGBTQA,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a place where students can build a community, feel safe, but it’s not with a group like this meeting there.”
Though Schlotterbeck said she and other student activists “started off mostly protesting the use of a room in the student union since they’re not a student group,” many now hope to “preferably get them off the campus entirely.” Members of Pacifica may not be violent and may wish no harm to Oregon’s students, she said, “but bringing in people who have ties to a very violent organization, giving those people a legitimate reason to be here, seems not to make sense" -- referring to the National Socialist Movement.
The issue “is not telling them that they can’t exist or can’t have the right to exist -- it’s more about use of a space rather than blocking their freedom of speech,” she added. “There’s nothing against people trying to stop other people from saying things just by speaking out.”
Kallaway said that Pacifica’s movement toward “pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic messages in the last few years has made students feel unsafe, like they can’t go to class and study in the EMU if these groups are there.” That, she said, “is not at all okay from a student government perspective.… We were elected to keep students safe, to fight for their interests.”
Richard Lariviere, the university’s president, lauded the protest movement in a Monday speech marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “I am intensely proud of the students and the community and the way they stood up to that hateful speech,” he said, referring to last week’s demonstration.
Martinez said he was proud to see “our students exercising their free thinking and speech in response to events that have clearly been hate mongering, as I’ve seen for myself at events I’ve attended.”
But Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston and director of the university’s Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance, said the student protesters approached the situation in the wrong way. “While I applaud their enthusiasm, the students took the bait,” he said. “This group wanted attention and by protesting, the students have now given national press to an issue that wouldn’t otherwise be getting attention.”
Had students opted to organize a debate of their own or some other kind of “rationed, reasoned, arm's-length discussion,” they would have brought scrutiny to Pacifica but done so in a way that “didn’t play into the hands of the bad guys.”
While events where “violence is genuinely and legitimately urged” could justifiably be forced off campus, Olivas said, “that does not seem to be the case here.”