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Invitation to Eco-Extremists Is Criticized

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Times Staff Writer

Cal State Fresno’s upcoming academic conference on “revolutionary environmentalism” -- including speakers associated with extremist groups tied to fire bombings and vandalism -- has riled critics from the campus to the community at large.

Academics, university donors and community leaders have accused the organizers of next week’s gathering of lending legitimacy to extremists and abandoning reasonable scholarly standards.

“There’s a question of inviting people who aren’t just advocates of violence, arson and vandalism to campus, but also those who have actually participated in such acts, and giving them a sort of university validity, not to mention spending state taxpayer money to do so,” said Bruce S. Thornton, a professor of classics and humanities at Cal State Fresno.

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“To use an extreme example, if somebody was interested in the psychology of child molesters, would they bring a convicted child molester to hear what that person has to say? I think not.”

Expected speakers at the Feb. 13-14 conference, which was organized mainly by the school’s political science department, include Rodney Coronado, who served 3 1/2 years in prison in connection with an arson at a Michigan State University lab in 1992. He is described in the flier for the gathering as a “former activist” with the Animal Liberation Front. His travel, hotel and meal expenses, and those of other guest speakers, are being paid with university funds.

Also listed is Craig Rosebraugh, a former spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a group linked to the Animal Liberation Front. Rosebraugh has been arrested many times, including once when he chained himself to the entrance of the Seattle Fur Exchange.

Neither Coronado nor Rosebraugh could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Ellen Gruenbaum, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Cal State Fresno, approved the conference and defended her decision Wednesday. She said that academics from her campus and other universities were included among the speakers. “My commitment, personally, is to provide a situation where our faculty have the academic freedom to explore vital issues of our society,” she said.

“Clearly, we don’t endorse the use of violence to advance environmental goals, but some people do, and our goal was to understand them, talk to them, challenge them.”

She said the idea for the conference was proposed to her in August by Mark Somma, a political science professor who has conducted research into environmental groups. Somma declined to return phone calls Wednesday and referred questions to the university relations staff.

Little was known about the gathering until late December, when news of it was distributed via the Internet by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington group that says it is backed by food, restaurant and beverage companies. The organization issued a report about the conference titled, “Legitimizing the Lunatics,” and said the list of speakers reads like a “Who’s Who of the environmental and animal-rights criminal culture.”

The article said the gathering looks like “a one-sided, anti-intellectual exercise completely bereft of opposing viewpoints.”

None of the campus critics have sought to cancel the conference. Because of the flap, it has been closed to everyone but faculty and students. In Fresno and the surrounding farming communities, however, emotions remain raw.

“It’s an example of how a university can make a big mistake,” said John Harris, owner of Harris Farms and Harris Ranch Beef in Coalinga, one of the largest beef producers in the San Joaquin Valley. “These terrorists have threatened our lives. I’m not against free speech, but where’s the common sense? I’ve considered pulling back the amount of money I donate to the school, but it’s really just one department’s fault. However, I’ve spoken with some donors that are feeling downright vindictive.”

Jim Ware, president and chief executive of the Clovis California Chamber of Commerce, wrote to Cal State Fresno President John D. Welty, saying, “Your act in supporting known terrorist groups during a time of war could be viewed as treasonous.”

John Mitts, an animal science major at the campus, said most of his classmates outside of agricultural fields don’t seem to be aware of the conference. For his part, Mitt said, “I don’t mind debate on controversial issues. In this instance, however, I don’t feel the university had the students or community’s best interests at heart. It’s a safety issue any time you’re dealing with people who advocate violence.”

Daniel P. Bartell, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, expressed concern that the conference would attract extremist groups that might threaten the safety of students who take classes on the campus’ 1,100-acre farm. Discussing controversial topics “is what universities are all about,” he said. “I’m not anti the conference, I’m not anti the idea the university should have free speech, but I can’t send kids out on the farm for their classes worrying about the fact that there could be an episode.”

Rosebraugh has in the past advocated illegal means to achieve his ends.

“There’s the necessity of not only legal campaigns but also, in most, if not all, occasions, a wholehearted illegal campaign involving terrorism, property destruction and beyond,” he told the alternative newspaper In These Times last year.

According to the FBI, the groups Coronado and Rosebraugh worked for have been responsible for more than 600 cases of eco-terrorism across the country, ranging from spray-painting buildings and breaking windows to firebombing fur farms and research centers.

The groups have caused about $43 million in damage, the FBI said.

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Times correspondent Don A. Wright in Fresno contributed to this report.


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