MISSION VIEJO — After receiving more than 200 angry calls from the public, the South Orange County Community College District on Thursday canceled a controversial seminar that claims a conspiracy was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The district's Board of Trustees had approved $5,000 to bring in four speakers--including one panelist who accuses the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, of masterminding Kennedy's murder in 1963. The action has been strongly criticized by some faculty members and the Anti-Defamation League.
The public outcry after The Times ran a story about the course was "pretty intense and somewhat surprising," said Chancellor Robert A. Lombardi. "Certainly none of us wanted to be offensive or troublesome to any group."
Amid the furor, Steven J. Frogue, the seminar's instructor and the chairman of the district's board, decided Thursday to move the forum off the Saddleback College campus, where it had been scheduled for Sept. 26-28. The seminar was a nonacademic credit offering through the community education department. Frogue plans to hold it somewhere else in the future, without district involvement.
Meanwhile, one of the planned speakers, Chicago author Sherman Skolnick, faxed a letter to Saddleback College President Ned Doffoney on Thursday denying he had agreed to participate in a seminar "attempting to blame the murder of President Kennedy on Jews" and accusing Frogue of "slandering and blackening my name."
Frogue declined to comment Thursday about the dispute over the seminar he had proposed to the Board of Trustees, which supported him by a 4-3 vote last Monday.
One trustee who voted for the seminar, John Williams, said Thursday he stands by his vote. "We've had requests to have public speakers before, some of them very controversial," he said. "This is an issue of the 1st Amendment."
But critics saw the issue differently.
Among its objections, the ADL said Skolnick is a member of the advisory board of the Spotlight, which the ADL called "the most anti-Semitic publication in America."
In his fax, Skolnick said, "I am a traditional Jew," and denied that he serves on Spotlight's advisory board, although he acknowledged, "I allowed Spotlight to print my stories. . . . "
Some within the campus community and outside maintained a college is a bastion of free thinking where controversial seminars should be conducted.
However, a district spokeswoman said the overwhelming majority of phone calls to the district were critical of allowing individuals with extreme views to participate in a seminar sanctioned by the district.
Lombardi defended the course even after it was canceled.
"I would argue on the side of free speech," he said. "Obviously, the Supreme Court has made many telling decisions in support of that view. In the largest realm of ideas, I think it's terribly important to allow differences of opinions to be voiced."
Lombardi said when he brought the public outcry to the attention of Frogue and other board members, Frogue offered to move the course off campus. The chancellor said cancellation does not require the board's vote.
Frogue, a high school history teacher who in interviews has said he believes the ADL was involved in the Kennedy assassination, indicated he would not accept pay for the course. But that did nothing to placate critics.
Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Orange County and Long Beach chapters of the ADL, said she remained troubled that Frogue still plans to hold the seminar.
"What happens with theorists, hatemongers and crackpots, if they can't get credibility, which is what the college would give them, is they find another venue to bring their message of right-wing extremism," she said Thursday.
The speaker list Frogue submitted to the board included Washington author Michael Collins Piper, who asserts the Kennedy assassination was engineered by the CIA, in cahoots with organized crime, and with profound involvement of the Mossad.
The Mossad, Piper argues, held a grudge against Kennedy because of a dispute the president had with former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion over Israel's drive to build nuclear weapons.
Also on the speakers list were talk show host Dave Emory, who contends renegade Nazis who fled Germany after World War II played a leading role in the assassination, and John Judge, who supports the conspiracy theories held by the late New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison.
The ADL also objected to Piper, whom the group says denies that the Holocaust occurred.
After the seminar was canceled, Piper, author of "Final Judgment: The Missing Link in the JFK Assassination Conspiracy," lashed out at the ADL.
"The Anti-Defamation League has not heard the last of 'Final Judgment,' " he said. "The door has been kicked open. There is now going to be a lot of debate about this book. . . . It's sad because we really don't have freedom of speech in America."