David Rey, a spokesman for the president's office at Eastern Washington University, reads aloud from some of the hate mail he's received lately. One guy, whose son attends Eastern, writes that he's shocked at the university's bad taste and "poor logic" in visiting lecturers. Another accuses the school of blatant political censorship and expresses his opinion that President Bush is a "weasel boy." Yet another writes in to opine that Eastern is "not interested in free speech" and to blast the school's "radical pagan anti-American agenda."
By 9:30 that morning, Rey has already received 14 such messages. He's lost count of how many e-mails and phone calls the school has received since Feb. 1, when he received a phone message from an AP reporter in Albany, N.Y., who wanted to talk to him about an upcoming Eastern lecture by someone named Ward Churchill.
Strange ... Rey says he'd never heard of Churchill. So he Googled him. Turns out Churchill, a radical and incendiary professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York, but his appearance was canceled because of intense security threats. Churchill told event organizers at Hamilton that he would be wearing a bulletproof vest as he spoke on "The Limits of Dissent," and that he would be flanked by two private bodyguards. It seems he had published a less-than-patriotic essay on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, in which he claimed, essentially, that America deserved what it got with the terrorist attacks. And now the media was turning it into a circus.
It also turns out that, unbeknownst to higher-ups, the school's American Indian Studies program had, in November, invited Churchill to campus to speak on Native American Activism in early April.
The letters started pouring in. "I have a HS senior looking at colleges. I am sure not interested in having her attend a college where the Administration does not understand the difference between 'hate' speech and 'freedom of speech.' What can you be thinking?" And this baffling electronic epistle: "You'd better drop your relations with Ward Churchill, if you want your rep intact, because we don't intend to drop Ward Churchill till he's contemplating his belly-hole down in May-he-co!!!"
In a Feb. 3 radio broadcast, Mark Fuhrman discussed Churchill's cancellation at Hamilton and his still-scheduled appearance at Eastern in great detail. The focus of the national media, like the mighty eye of Sauron, swung heavily toward little Cheney, Wash. More letters: "What were you thinking?"
The next day, President Stephen Jordan, citing mounting security concerns, announced that he was canceling Churchill's April 5 lecture. More letters: "Your school is right in bagging Churchill. Good go don't cave in."
On Valentine's Day, the university's faculty senate, bristling at that perceived censorship, voted to request officially that President Jordan re-invite Churchill to speak -- and not via some kind of video conference, as had been suggested around campus, but in the flesh. The American Indian Studies program seconded the motion. So did a representative from the associated student government.
That news was fanned later that week when the editor of the Easterner, the school's newspaper, appeared on conservative talk wag Bill O'Reilly's radio show. The next night Patricia Chantrill, the president of the school's faculty senate, appeared on O'Reilly's television show.
More letters: "I was disgusted by your faculty representative on O'Reilly." And: "I am extremely disappointed in the decision to 're-invite' Ward Churchill ... He voices killing and justifies it because he wants to kill. If he wants to kill you, and states he wants to kill you, will you let him?"
Rey says a lot of people have confused talks about re-inviting Churchill to speak at Eastern with actually re-inviting him. That decision is now solely up to Jordan, who's already canceled him once, and Rey says no timeline has yet been set for making a new decision. Still, more letters reach David Rey's e-mail desk every day. "Liberal traitors." "Radical, pagan, anti-American agenda!"
Rey almost sounds amused. When asked why he thinks people have responded so strongly, he says, "I can't really give too much conjecture as to other people's motivations for not acting like adults."
He says he hasn't seen such an uproar over an Eastern campus speaker since the '80s, when the university hosted Montana militiaman John Trockman. But even then, he says, "That was kind of pre-O'Reilly, pre-talk-radio-freaking-out time," adding, "We're living in a pretty interesting time, where people can find something out and it can be analyzed and turned upside down and backwards within minutes through the blogosphere and talk radio."
With all the hubbub over Churchill and porn star Ron Jeremy (who spoke at the university last week), "It's been 'Free Speech Month' here at Eastern," he says.