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Churchill's Speech Canceled out of Concern for Student Safety

This letter to the editor appeared in the February 19, 2005 edition of the Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.).

Dear Editor:

John Nichols, in a recent column on the Ward Churchill controversy, wrote, "Campuses in other states, where there is less of a tradition of academic freedom and respect for the First Amendment, have responded to the pressure from right-wing media to cancel Churchill's talks. But Wisconsin has a long history of setting a higher standard -- and Chancellor Miller's decision honors that standard."

Since the controversy began at Hamilton College and since Churchill's appearance was canceled on our campus, I believe readers can only assume that Nichols was including Hamilton in his reference to campuses in other states.

It was certainly not a lack of academic freedom or respect for the First Amendment that prevented Hamilton, a college that had previously hosted the head of the Nazi Party among other controversial speakers, from hosting Churchill. Nor was it media pressure.

In fact, it is well documented, beginning with a death threat recorded on voice mail at the Denver Post (on reporter Howard Pankratz's phone) that there were over a hundred threats directed toward Churchill, Hamilton's president and Hamilton's community prior to the cancellation of the event. Quite a few of these were death threats, and five are currently under active investigation by state and local police. One caller announced that he planned to bring a gun to campus.

At the same time, unlike your governor, our governor issued a statement of harsh criticism toward our college for hosting Churchill. Given his words, we couldn't help but wonder what kind of state police assistance might have been available to our small rural college should we have needed it.

When the director of public safety on campus as well as local police told us that they could not guarantee the safety of our students, we canceled the event. True, the safety of our students superseded all else, but I believe any rational individual held responsible for the safety of 1,750 students would have made the same decision.

Vige Barrie
Director of Media Relations
Hamilton College
Clinton, N.Y.