A choice by a self-proclaimed student supporter of some Nazi ideas to wear a "Blood & Honour" armband both on and off the Bellarmine University campus this semester has led to fierce debate over freedom of expression at the Roman Catholic institution in Louisville. Administrators have created a committee to study what to do, while professors and students cope with what some are calling blatant intimidation left unchecked -- and that others see as free expression.
Meanwhile, Andrei Chira, a freshman, continues to wear the armband, which he says is part of standing up for what he believes in.
Chira said Wednesday that the band – which depicts a symbol similar to a swastika -- is his way of showing support for National Socialism. Believers in the "Blood & Honour" philosophy have traditionally been associated with “white pride and white power,” according to the Web site of the American National Socialist Party.
However, Chira said that racial and ethnic issues are not the reason he wears the band and that he doesn’t support anti-Semitism and racism. Rather, he ascribes to the philosophy that it’s important to “think about what you believe in,” and he said he favors the concept of nationalism over party affiliation.
Chira grew up in Irvine, California after his family moved there from Romania when he was 4. In high school, he said, he often wore pins that proclaimed his support for National Socialism.
As more people took notice of his band and realized what it stood for, he’s been told by some students and professors that one can’t half support the positions of a group.
“Yes, you can,” said Chira, noting that he’s good friends with his Jewish residential adviser and has black friends. “Are all Democrats against the war? Are all Republicans for the war?” he asked.
Chira’s girlfriend, Jaye Popplewell, also a freshman at the university, said Wednesday that, while she considers herself a “heeb hippie” (though she’s not Jewish) on the opposite end of the spectrum than Chira, she supports her boyfriend’s choice of expression. “I don’t agree with it, but I will fight to the death for his right to wear it,” she said of the armband. Several student protesters held a "Sit In for Free Speech" on Monday outside of administrators’ offices in an effort to pre-empt any attempts by the university to make Chira remove the band.
While Chira believes strongly in his ideas, he said that he’d take off the band if asked to do so by administrators. He said he would never consider leaving the college over this issue because he believes that the private institution can make its own rules.
Questions about Chira’s motivations linger, however. When the student first started wearing the band earlier in September, Laura Ward, former president of the Bellarmine University Democrats, says she heard a student ask him why he was wearing it.
“His response was, ‘Well, I'm a Nazi,’ reflected Ward via e-mail Wednesday. “Now Andrei says that he is in fact a supporter of the American National Socialists, and not a Nazi or a white-supremacist. I have not spoken with Andrei himself, so I am hesitant to say whether or not I believe that this is true.
“What I do know is this: The American National Socialist party has 25 points, point four of which states, ‘Only members of the nation may be citizens of the state. Only those of pure White blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation. Non-citizens may live in America only as guests and must be subject to laws for aliens. Accordingly, no Jew or homosexual may be a member of the nation.' I find this point offensive and discriminatory, and there are other points that I find equally derogatory.”
Chira admitted that earlier in the semester he had called himself a Nazi, but has changed his mind about that label, saying he “realize[s] that it is pejorative.”
Fred Rhodes, the university’s vice president for student affairs, released a statement indicating that the institution “fully supports and embraces freedom of expression.”
"Bellarmine is committed to the principle of free speech -- even when, as is the case with some of the issues we are addressing now -- that speech or expression is contrary to the values this institution holds most dear,” said Rhodes. "We believe the best way to defeat abhorrent expressions and concepts such as these is to expose them in the open market place of ideas.”
"At the same time,” said Rhodes, “Bellarmine University is fully committed to the safety of everyone at the university. No member of the campus community should be threatened, intimidated or harassed by another.”
In response to that statement, Joshua Golding, chairman of the university’s philosophy department, sent an e-mail to faculty members and students at the school, encouraging them to pressure the administration to ask that the student remove the band.
”The public wearing of a neo-Nazi symbol is definitely ‘intimidating’ to many persons on this campus,” he wrote. “Any person who wears such a symbol is in effect saying the following: 'I know that this symbol is associated with a group that has unrepentantly perpetrated hatred and denigration of certain minority groups, as well as engaged in murder and torture of innocent people, and I AM PROUD to be associated with this group!’"
He added, "Our tolerance of 'diversity' does not need to include those who openly identify themselves with racist hate groups. On the contrary, the college is obligated to ask such persons to either keep hateful views to themselves, or to leave.”
In response to such views, Joseph J. McGowan, the president of the university, issued a statement that said “some among us appear not to understand the necessity and importance of free speech in an open and conversational university -- and the unique opportunity that only this free speech provides for destroying the viability of hateful, exclusionary ideas.”
To promote a study of hate speech and conduct and to better understand Chira’s views, McGowan has created a task force, which is to submit its findings and recommendations to him. The group includes the provost and the vice president for student affairs, the chairs of the faculty and the staff councils, the director of human resources and the president of the student government association. The group is expected to meet for the first time within the next two weeks.
“I personally do not care what is going on in [Chira’s] head,” Golding said via e-mail regarding the decision to create the task force. “To me that's irrelevant. The symbol he wears is a neo-Nazi symbol.
“I note (with irony) that the student wearing the neo-Nazi symbol has not been asked to serve on the task force,” said Golding. “I wonder why? Shouldn't he have a chance to express his view there, too?”
Chira said Wednesday that a password-protected bulletin board, accessible to Bellarmine students and faculty, has been created by the university officials, as a place to discuss the issues raised by his armband. He said that he thinks it’s a “definitely a step in the right direction” since hundreds of students are now posting about freedom of expression issues on campus.
Still, he wouldn’t want this debate talked about back home in Irvine. “My dad would kick my ass if he knew all this was happening,” said Chira.