FULLERTON — Cal State Fullerton police have decided to beef up security for tonight's talk by abrasive former talk-show host Morton Downey Jr., which has been targeted for picketing by a student group.
The school's Multi-Cultural Council, comprising representatives from 28 student organizations, passed a resolution Thursday labeling Downey as "racist and culturally offensive" and condemning AS Productions, sponsors of the talk, for spending $5,000 in student funds to bring him to Fullerton.
"I hate to say (I am) 'anxious,' but I am wondering how this is all going to turn out," said Audrey Perry of AS Productions. She said she has heard some discussion of a possible counter protest, but knows of no definite plans.
"We've discussed the situation with our campus police," Perry said, noting that the university has guidelines governing protests and demonstrations. "If we can be mutually respective of those rules, I don't really see a big problem."
Bill Huffman, assistant director of public safety at the university, said more than the usual number of officers would be on hand for the event.
Meanwhile, Perry reported that members of the Multi-Cultural Council hung posters on Monday urging a boycott of all "culturally insensitive" programs sponsored by AS Productions. Posters advertising Downey's appearance continue to be torn down, she said.
Multi-Cultural Council chairwoman Judy Perry-Lichtenstein said Friday that the group opposes the use of student funds to bring Downey to campus, adding that she would not be opposed "if he wanted to come into the middle of campus and spout off" at his own expense. The group also condemned the booking of some comedians who have told ethnic jokes at events sponsored by AS Productions.
Members of the council charge that, in past public appearances, Downey has used racial epithets in reference to blacks and has denigrated a number of cultural and minority groups, including Arabs, Iranians, gays and lesbians. Downey, whose controversial TV talk show was canceled last July in the face of declining ratings, could not be reached for comment. His announced topic tonight is "Censorship and Free Press."
Student-run AS Productions normally books productions independently, without broad student input, but decided this time to circulate 150 surveys listing 15 possible speakers before signing Downey, who came out on top. The survey has been criticized by some as favoring fraternity members, but Perry defended it as a representative cross-section of students.
"We put a lot of events on this campus, and we try to have something for everybody, not just certain groups," Perry said. "We foresaw some controversy (with Downey), but never something to this scale."
And while AS Productions screens comedians before booking them, ethnic jokes or remarks directed at gays and lesbians sometimes occur. "Once that happens, there's not much we can do about it," Perry said. "We don't look for racist comedians."
Possible repercussions of the brouhaha include more student oversight of AS Productions-sponsored events. "I have a feeling it may come to that," Perry said.
The Daily Titan, the campus student newspaper, has received some letters defending Downey's appearance on campus. One published letter, from the president of the school's Political Science Assn., denounced attempts to have the Downey talk canceled as "academic fascism and intellectual censorship."
Jay Berman, a CSUF journalism instructor and adviser to the Daily Titan, said he believes that students have a right to be angered by what he called a waste of student funds but cautioned against taking the confrontational Downey too seriously. "I think if people have judgment they realize that this is a talk-show guy," Berman said. "His controversy is the business of being controversial. . . . He's controversial because that's his shtick. "
While he denounced Downey and other purveyors of so-called "trash TV" as part of a "scary" trend, he added: "I think censoring them is more scary."
Perry-Lichtenstein and others have disagreed, saying that acceptance of entertainment with racist overtones leads to more tolerance of racism and racially motivated incidents.