University of Oregon Continues Struggle With Controversial Group

Emotional student senate meeting results in vote to allow Pacifica Forum to stay on campus.

By + More

A controversial group at the University of Oregon has been feeling the heat from the Associated Students of the University of Oregon Senate and the university community for a while. There have been protests and ASUO Senate hearings trying to figure out the best way to handle the presence of the group—the Pacifica Forum—on campus. Last week, there was a new twist to the plot. 

The Pacifica Forum, a group led by Orval Etter, a retired University of Oregon professor, is a discussion group based in Eugene that meets on Oregon's campus but is not affiliated with the school. (School policy allows retired professors to rent space on campus to hold events.) The forum was recently identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Etter describes the group as a discussion-oriented organization designed to "generate intellectual dialogue about controversial racial topics." Yet the ASUO Senate has been arguing the merits of asking Pacifica to stop meeting on the school's campus for the same reasons the SPLC called the forum a hate group: Many of the group's regular members allegedly espouse anti-Semitic ideas. The group has also invited Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazi groups to campus. 

The university's student government has found one sticking point—freedom of speech—in the debate over whether it should ask Pacifica to meet elsewhere. On Wednesday, the ASUO Senate voted against a resolution that would demand that the forum leave campus, the Oregon Daily Emerald reports. The resolution was voted down 11 to 7, with one senator abstaining. A raucous crowd of more than 100 students and community members watched the debate. 

Many students and community members are opposed to the group meeting on campus for safety reasons. "I am a student who likes to pull all-nighters in the library," student Kierra Fantroy-Harrison, who testified on the resolution's behalf, said at the meeting. "But I don't feel like I can be safe doing that." 

Others are wary of the appropriateness of the state's flagship university allowing the forum on campus. 

"I do understand that banning someone from meeting on the campus would infringe on free speech. I just find it hard to believe the administrations think allowing such groups to operate on campus is appropriate," German Prof. Jeffrey Librett told the Daily Emerald in 2009. "I am not terribly worried about the group being dangerous, but it certainly is not a good thing to have them meeting" on campus. 

Nonetheless, for now, the ASUO Senate won't be asking the forum to go. And the contentious debate will rage on.

"I voted 'yes' last week [on whether or not to vote on the resolution] and had a very emotional moment," one student senator said at the meeting. But "I realized my conscience would not let me vote against free speech."