EUGENE, Oregon (AP) — The University of Oregon, a campus with a reputation for young, left-leaning activists, has been roiled in protest as an aging collection of extremists sharpens its message — including making a Hitler salute at an event.
Pacifica Forum, a discussion group led by a 94-year-old retired professor who resides in an assisted-living facility, has been deemed a hate group by those who track the issue. Some students say the group's speech has made the university a dangerous place and want them banned from campus.
Administrators now find themselves trapped between the ideal of tolerance and the right to free speech, searching for a way to have both.
At a recent event, students stomped their feet, heckled and then stood and turned their backs as a speaker defended Cold War-era Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose hunt for high-level U.S. communists has been widely discredited, and called civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. a communist dupe.
With more than 30 security officers assigned to keep the peace, the group's nonagenarian leader Orval Etter sat in a wheelchair, silently observing the spectacle while at times half-asleep.
According to its Web site, the forum's mission is to "provide information and perspective on the issues of war and peace, militarism and pacifism, violence and non-violence." The group includes a furious anti-communist, and a kilt-wearing Nazi sympathizer.
The group met off campus for years until, according to Etter, Jewish groups unhappy with what they considered an anti-Israel slant pressured a local church to drop them. Etter then took advantage of a university policy in which retired faculty can book rooms on campus for free, but the group is otherwise not affiliated with the school.
Charles Martinez, the university's vice president for institutional equity and diversity, said administrators have been meeting to decide whether to change school policy on the use of space by outside groups. "They haven't been easy discussions," he said. "They shouldn't be easy."
Pacifica has fewer than 10 core members and no firm rules for deciding who delivers a free lecture. "The forum has been, in a quite genuine way, an expression of free speech," Etter said.
Many topics have been tackled, but the group has gained attention for hosting speakers who question the Holocaust. In 2008, for example, Pacifica invited David Irving, who served time in an Austrian prison for violating the country's law against denying the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews during War World II.
Paul Bessemer, director of Hillel, a campus Jewish organization, has monitored Pacifica for years. He said Pacifica members have long had sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but the current batch has taken it in a darker direction.
"It's got a much nastier tone than it used to," Bessemer said.
Since the Hitler salute at a Pacifica presentation in December, scores of protesters — some silent, some not — have attended meetings once largely ignored.
Roughly 100 students rallied Friday before Pacifica's most recent gathering. Holding signs such as "Pacifica Forum Nazi Dupes," and "Smash Fascism," the students urged the group to leave campus — voluntarily or by university edict.
The students marched to the edge of campus, where Valdas Anelauskas, a Lithuanian immigrant and racial separatist, lectured for more than hour, partly on the role of Jews in the Bolshevik Revolution. Protesters regularly challenged him.
"Filtered and twisted facts," shouted Joseph Newton, 51, of Eugene.