As detailed in the December 24, 2009 issue of the Eugene Weekly, the “Eugene Anti-Hate Task Force” has “strongly condemned” a recent meeting held by the Pacifica Forum, a local organization that has a long history of hosting controversial, often anti-Semitic events at the University of Oregon campus, among other general lunacy. Their most recent escapade was a “celebration of National Socialism” during which one speaker reputedly “blamed ‘Jewish lies’ for the Iraq War, praised the swastika as a symbol of white people, showed a neo-Nazi propaganda video, and led several audience members in an enthusiastic Nazi salute.”
Lovely stuff, really, and the “Eugene Anti-Hate Task Force” is certainly to be commended for publicly rebuking the Pacifica Forum’s latest excess.
Sadly, the Task Force’s preferred solution to the problem of stupid bald guys who have an unhealthy fixation on big, prominently-displayed swastikas foisting onto the public their putrid, half-baked ideas is to demand that they be banned from using University facilities. While the AHTF maintains that isn’t trying to “silence” the Pacifica Forum, it does insist that the University “has a responsibility to Eugene-Springfield, as well as to its student body, to ensure a safe campus free of harassment and racist threats,” which is thinly-veiled code for “we don’t like what they’re saying, and we want them gone.” Joseph Lieberman, the author of the Eugene Weekly piece admits as much when he writes:
At issue is whether all free speech should be safeguarded by the UO without any restrictions whatsoever, or whether what has been called “hate speech designed to incite violence” violates the rights of students, staff or faculty who feel threatened by the UO condoning such activities on campus.
Such questions should, in a free society, never be “at issue.” The Pacifica Forum is an organization filled with malignant racists but they, like the horrifying Al Nakbha protesters and their sleazy propaganda, the psychotic anti-abortion demonstrators who come to campus every year, or anyone else who cares to, should be able to freely express their opinions at an institution that has publicly committed itself to “the conviction that freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock principle on which university activity is based.”
Then again, that commitment might not be as strong as some might hope. In a letter to the editor sent to the Weekly, University Vice-President of Institutional Equity and Diversity Charles Martinez writes:
It is unacceptable that such a close-minded and hateful presentation can find an audience within our community. When strong ideas are expressed, institutions of higher education, including the UO, have an obligation to engage in scholarly discovery and analysis. However, the university should neither be considered supportive of, nor affiliated with, such ideas as expressed by the Pacifica Forum. The space is currently used under a policy that allows retired professors to book campus rooms free of charge.
As such, we are addressing our policies about how best to proceed with our mission and values while safeguarding the campus community and the values of free speech… While I strongly believe that the UO must defend the free exchange of ideas and promote intellectual inquiry, we have a greater responsibility to turn ideas into the discovery of knowledge in a manner that is inclusive and welcoming to all our students and the communities we serve. [Emphasis added]
To put it simply: no.
The Pacifica Forum’s continuing outrages are most certainly disgusting and they are deserving of all the derision society can heap upon them. But the minute people start talking about limiting certain kinds of speech because they find them distasteful, they are in jeopardy of abandoning those all principles that they ostensibly stand for. Charles Martinez appending a rhetorical “but…” to his affirmation of his commitment to the free exchange of ideas and his subsequent explanation that, in order to foster that free exchange, we must first of all halt it in the name of “inclusiveness” represents nothing less than an assault on the concept of open inquiry and freedom from censorship; it is a tacit warning that, if certain people get their way, the “marketplace of ideas” can be locked up and shut down any time it runs afoul of some bureaucrat’s definition of which ideas are “welcoming.”
The appropriate response to this incident would have been to publicly condemn, in the strongest of terms, the Pacifica Forum and the content of its meetings while reaffirming the University’s commitment to free speech and asserting that, since no laws have been broken, the University has no place interfering in the exchange of ideas, however repugnant they might be.
After all, what constitutes a greater threat to our liberties: a roomful of white power dead-enders whose ideas are utterly rejected by virtually everyone or a bureaucracy with the power to dictate which ideas are acceptable and which are not? Because this isn’t just about Nazis in the Pacifica Forum or lack of respect for the First Amendment at the University of Oregon; it’s about people who seemingly envision a paradigmatic shift in this country away from truly free speech toward a more utopic world in which everyone watches what they say in public and only truly express themselves in private, around a table with close friends — and even then, tentatively.
On a more positive note the Weekly’s “Slant” section had this to say:
It’s best to keep radical and even outrageous ideas out in the public where they can be challenged and debated openly. Teachable moments abound, and we need to be reminded that we don’t have to scratch very deeply through Eugene’s liberal veneer to find bigotry, hatred and violence.
Hate speech can incite violence, or at least make the targets of the attacks feel unsafe. The most effective response is for the community at large to stand up and loudly challenge hatred and injustice at every opportunity. Such action not only shows the bigots that they have no support; it also serves as an example for young people who are still forming their ideas and attitudes about people who are, on the surface, different from them.
Yeah. That’s more like it.