Controversial flier spurs dialogue at Clark

Response of college leaders, race, freedom of speech among topics

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Update

• Previously: “White and Proud” fliers appeared on the Clark College campus Oct. 5, upsetting several students and employees.

• What’s new: An “open dialogue” on Monday allowed discussion of free speech rights, safety from fear and the intimidation minorities experience.

• What’s next: Clark’s Cultural Pluralism Committee takes up the issue Wednesday. The college cabinet will continue discussion on recrafting school policies on such controversies.

A Clark College “open dialogue” on a “White and Proud” flier distributed on campus two weeks ago and the adequacy of school leaders’ response, proved to be just that.

For a civil, respectful 90 minutes on Monday, Clark students, instructors and staff and a few community leaders sounded off on heavy issues of race, hatred, fear and freedom of speech.

Few punches were pulled.

Speaking first, Clark student Nathan Goncalves of Stevenson, wearing a navy blue, swastika-emblazoned uniform and black boots, claimed title to the flier and read its full contents aloud, within the three minutes allotted each participant.

“I’m here to tell you the National Socialist Movement is not about hatred … (it’s) about love,” Goncalves told a crowd of about 250 persons that filled the Gaiser Student Center, none of whom interrupted him.

Several followed with other notions, and the dialogue began.

“Is it worthy to get the whole campus involved? It is worthy,” said a student named Veronica, who said she’s been subject of many racist remarks, malicious or not. “I hear aggression, all the time.”

She noted one-quarter of Clark’s 16,000 students are listed as minority students.

“When you single out one group, you single them all out. I think 4,000 (students) is enough” to justify a stronger Clark response, she said.

“There’s been a lot of discussion at the college. A heated debate,” said President Bob Knight, who kept his introductory comments brief. “It’s all over the nation, hate speech versus the First Amendment. And, now, here it is at Clark College.”

No tolerance for threats

Clark officials took notes. Knight said future meetings will help the college strike a difficult balance of uncensored ideas and tuition-paying students’ right to study free of personal intimidation.

Knight said that administrators learned of the flier on Oct. 5 when it surfaced, but decided it posed no immediate threat to students. Criticism flared when a campus e-mail sent two days later came not from Knight but from a personnel director who is the acting campus diversity and equity director.

Knight did deliver his own campus e-mail on Thursday. He wrote that “no threats against any member of our college community will be tolerated.”

The flier exposed a gap in Clark policies over contentious forms of expression, Knight said on Monday. “We need to work on that. We want to learn from this. If there’s things we can do better, let’s do it,” he said.

Speakers wasted no time telling Knight and other Clark leaders and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, also present, that racism and homophobia persist on campus in ways majority white and heterosexual people might not realize.

They said the flier left wounds and heightened real fears that some students and staff face.

“We do not all live the same reality. Targeted groups struggle daily on our campus,” said Dian Ulner, a women’s studies instructor at Clark.

“Whites don’t need to think about it; straights don’t need to think about it,” said Charlie, a student with short-cropped hair who wears men’s-style clothing. “I am afraid I will be assaulted and left to die” during a short walk home on some nights, she said.

A troubling culture long predates Knight’s reign on campus but is no less disturbing, said Mark, a Clark facilities employee who is openly gay.

“It’s not easy, at Clark. I’ve been fighting this for 35 years,” he said. “I choose not to hide, because it’s disgusting. I put up with it because I need a job.”

First Amendment

Conversely, some argued Clark must stand for First Amendment rights in an academic setting, however ugly the message.

“Free speech cannot be measured by whether it makes you comfortable or uncomfortable,” said John Jablonski, part-time Clark communications teacher.

“There’s nothing in freedom-of-speech (law) that protects you from stupidity,” said one gray-haired Mature Learning course student. He suggested Clark students simply turn a deaf ear, as did at least one young student who spoke.

Still others, including Vancouver leaders in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, said Knight and Clark officials cannot stand idly by when inflammatory images such as the swastika appear.

A local member of the Washington state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said she took heart from Monday’s heartfelt session.

“This isn’t something new that just popped up in this community,” said Maria Rodriguez-Salazar. “We haven’t connected the dots. We need to get better at responding.

“I am celebrating today, because this is the first time that I’ve seen this community, as a whole, and this college, tackle this (issue),” she said.

Knight also voiced optimism.

“This was a good start to help the college move on,” he said.

Clark’s Cultural Pluralism Committee will take up the issue on Wednesday, and the college cabinet will continue discussion on recrafting school policies, Knight said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.