A student activist group at the University of Southern Maine is calling on the administration to cancel an appearance by a conservative state legislator whose political career has been marked by controversy.
Students for USM Future posted a statement on its Facebook page Wednesday urging the school administration to “immediately” cancel the speaking engagement by Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst.
Lockman, who has drawn criticism in the past for his statements about gays, rape and abortion, will lead a discussion titled “Alien Invasion: Fixing the Immigrant Crisis,” on Feb. 16 from 7-8 p.m. at USM’s Wishcamper Center in Portland. Lockman was invited to speak by a student group at USM called Young Americans for Freedom.
The group distributed fliers on campus last week that show Lockman posing with Gov. Paul LePage. The flier announces a discussion on illegal and legal immigration. In the background, a cartoon depicts a line of people waiting to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Lockman is sponsoring a bill – L.D. 366 – that seeks to ensure that state and local governments comply with federal immigration law. His bill proposes withholding state funding from communities that provide safe haven for illegal immigrants.
“The past week (the election) came with dramatic national change with implications for our university and universities across the country. For many, these are challenging times. Even scary times,” Students for USM Future wrote on Facebook.
“USM will not serve as yet another platform for these proponents of virulent hate speech, no matter their background or political viewpoint,” the Facebook post said. “The dangerous viewpoints of Lockman and the Young Americans for Freedom have the potential to incite acts of violence against people in the USM community, which is consistent with local and national trends. It is the responsibility of the University to ensure the safety of students and all persons on the campus. This is a preventable danger.”
USM President Glenn Cummings said the university will not tolerate violence and pledged to ensure Lockman has the opportunity to speak in a safe environment. He plans to meet with members of the opposition group Friday to go over some of the ground rules.
Cummings also said Ben Bussierre, chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom, has been told he must pay to hire campus security guards or Portland police officers for the event.
“In this case, we do believe there is a risk to public safety,” Cummings said Wednesday in an interview. “It could become a highly charged situation, and that is why we believe having extra security on hand will be essential. We realize there is strong disagreement locally and across our country on immigration issues.”
News of Lockman’s appearance comes on the heels of a protest at the University of California Berkeley this month against a planned appearance by conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. The Feb. 1 protest turned violent and resulted in an estimated $100,000 worth of damage. The school canceled the event about two hours before the Breitbart editor was scheduled to speak.
Cummings, a former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, says such an event should be welcome on a college campus. “Freedom of speech is a very important part of our democracy,” he said. “A university needs to be a place where there can be a free exchange of ideas.”
Lockman’s political record has been polarizing. In 2014, Democrats called for his resignation after a liberal activist posted a blog reporting statements Lockman had made about gays, abortion and rape over several decades. Democrats called the comments “hateful, vicious, and offensive.”
Lockman, who was interviewed Wednesday night, said he is not coming to Portland to incite violence. When told about the possibility of a protest, he said, “I guess I’m not surprised. The left doesn’t believe in free speech.”
Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage issued a statement Wednesday thanking Cummings for promising that Lockman’s appearance will take place “without obstruction.”
“We have been deeply concerned that a group of aggressive protesters were trying to force USM to shut down a speaking appearance by a conservative state lawmaker,” Savage said. “These protesters’ belief that the campus should shut down an event that presents a viewpoint they disagree with is flat-out wrong.”
Bussiere, who organized the appearance by Lockman, invited opponents to come and listen to Lockman rather than try to prevent him from speaking. Bussiere said protesters have “openly threatened” to shut the event down.
“This is a group that will go to any ends to silence opposing voices. That is intolerance at the greatest level,” said Bussiere, a senior.
Iris SanGiovanni, identified by university officials as the spokesperson for Students for USM Future, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
But Humza Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who serves as president of the USM Student Board, said he is willing to listen to Lockman.
He hopes that opponents will respect Lockman’s right to express his opinions and not try to block entry to the forum, but he added, “if things become uncivil there may be some people who will try to protest the event and shut it down.”
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: