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MSU student group cited as hateful

DETROIT – Perhaps nowhere is the uninhibited exchange of ideas more preciously guarded than on a college campus. But what happens when the conversation turns ugly?

What happens when speakers are taunted and demonstrators arrested? Or when metal detectors and police dogs become part of the backdrop?

Such tensions have played out on college campuses for decades, but they have reached a fever pitch at Michigan State University. There, an increasingly visible chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom has invited a string of speakers characterized by critics as hate-mongers.

The chapter is “a very virulent, nasty little group,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, which last year added Michigan State’s YAF chapter to its list of active hate groups.

It’s the first – and to date, only – campus-based student organization in the nation to land on the list, which law enforcement agencies and others use to track the activities of extremist groups.

YAF’s speakers at Michigan State have been met by spirited protests, as critics say the events are about spreading hate rather than intellectual exploration. YAF’s leaders say there is nothing wrong with their choice of speakers, including one who spoke last week.

Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group of volunteers who patrol the United States-Mexico border, discussed illegal immigration at Michigan State last week.

“This is not hate speech. If anything, we’re a love group. We love God, home, and country,” said Kyle Bristow, YAF Michigan State chapter chairman.

Nate Sherman, financial director of MSU’s YAF, said he found YAF to have a “proactive approach to conservatism” and he questioned the Southern Poverty Law Center’s credibility.

“Anyone can make a list,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Detroit Free Press. “In fact, the SPLC is on our list of hate groups!”

Bristow dismisses his chapter’s listing as a hate group, adding of the protests: “It’s sad that these kinds of things happen at an institution of higher learning.”

Potok said it is not a designation that should be taken lightly.

“We have not spent a lot of energy trying to hunt down unpleasant college groups, but this one kind of shoved itself in our faces,” Potok said.

“This is not one controversial speaker,” said Philip Moon, a Michigan State senior telecommunications major and a blogger for “There are serious issues and consequences in this.”

Appearances by other YAF speakers _ several pushed for a crackdown on immigration, one said Islam was a threat to Western civilization, and another espoused homosexuality as a deviant choice _ touched off noisy protests. Organizers claimed they were kicked and spat upon and their car tires slashed. Police made arrests. Somebody yanked fire alarms.

Bristow shrugs at the fact an overwhelming student vote recalled him from his post in Michigan State’s undergraduate student government after he argued that minority groups shouldn’t be automatically represented in student government. He also pushed for a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” a failed event at the University of Michigan’s campus organized by that university’s YAF chapter. Just one person joined a so-called game at the University of Michigan in which students were to find a volunteer dressed as an illegal immigrant for a chance at winning $200.

Erik Johnson, head of the national YAF, an ultra conservative group, said he doesn’t get the controversy.

“The left seems to have blown a fuse since Bush got elected,” he said.

YAF claims about 5,000 members and believes in laissez-faire economics and a strong national defense. Its members are either conservative or libertarian, Johnson said.

He wouldn’t speak directly about the Michigan State group, referring instead to an April statement in which YAF’s policy committee notes that the national group has taken strong stands against affirmative action and supports tougher border security and a crack down on illegal immigration _ the same as its Michigan State group.

Moon and other students recently demanded that the administration condemn the Oct. 26 appearance of Nick Griffin, the head of the British National Party, saying YAF’s speakers endanger students’ safety.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon was in an awkward position. She has been adamant that free speech is “at the heart of academic freedom.”

Mike Epstein, a member of the Jewish Student Union, wanted Simon to take a stand, something akin to the blistering introduction Columbia University President Lee Bollinger gave Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before a September talk there.

“When a speaker like this comes to speak to a campus, you’d think the administration and the trustees would say `This is ridiculous,'” Epstein said.

David Hudson Jr., attorney for the First Amendment Center, an educational advocacy group, said the easy answer to such dilemmas is this: Campuses “are supposed to be loci for intellectual freedom and inquiry. There’s supposed to be this sort of marketplace for ideas.”

But he and others acknowledge that when things get messy, administrations like Michigan State’s find themselves balancing rights to free speech against the safety of the students, security costs, and damage to its image.

Taking a position can ignite the volatile. Doing nothing can appear callous or weak.

“The problem is that whatever they do, they’re going to get heavy criticism” for the decision, said Megan Fitzgerald, program director for the Chicago-based Center for Campus Free Speech.

Banning a group from speaking not only raises legal issues, it can be a shortcut to a public relations morass, said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“When you try to stop somebody from speaking, it has a counterproductive effect. It gets bigger attention,” said Strossen, who spoke this week at the University of Michigan on the topic: Defending Freedom: Even for the Thoughts We Hate.

At Michigan State, Trustee Faylene Owen has asked for a resolution clarifying that the university does not endorse Griffin’s message.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s preferable to prescribed conversations and banned topics, said Terry Denbow, university spokesman.

“I would rather have it messy than clean-cut,” said Denbow. “That’s when it gets scary.”


Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report

Center for Campus Free Speech

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