Catonsville immigration forum canceled after threats of protests

A public forum on immigration planned for tonight at the Catonsville Library has been canceled following pressure from members of at least two progressive groups that labeled one of the scheduled speakers a representative of a hate group.

The cancellation of the latest panel discussion in the county League of Women Voters’ “Baltimore County Discusses” series came after a similar forum two weeks ago at the Cockeysville Library was disrupted and police had to be called.

“Judging by how the Cockeysville event went, it just felt like it wasn’t in the public’s best interest to move forward with it,” Erica Palmisano, spokeswoman for the Baltimore County library system, said.

The nonpartisan League and library received phone calls, emails and visits urging them to withdraw the invitation to Jonathan Hanen, a speaker from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, a nonprofit that advocates for limits on immigration.

When the League refused to remove FAIR from the discussion, people from the Green Party and Indivisible, which bills itself online as a grass roots network “to resist the Trump Agenda,” vowed to protest in Catonsville.

“It was a difficult choice to make,” Jennifer Haire, a vice president of the League, said. “But we had to put safety first.”

The protesters said FAIR uses a veneer of legitimacy to mask underlying racism and white nationalism, a claim that FAIR rejects.

“We took a stand that free speech did not mean hate against any other group,” said Susan Radke, a member of Indivisible.

“We don’t debate racist hate groups,” said Theresa Alexander, co-chair of the Baltimore County Green Party, which was invited to participate on the panel but declined because of FAIR’s involvement. “We do not legitimize them by giving them such a platform from which to cause harm to immigrants and other marginalized groups.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group with a focus on civil rights, designates FAIR as an “anti-immigrant hate group” because of views and policies it says promote racism.

Others dispute the law center’s definition of hate groups.

“I think there’s mixed feelings about how they draw out what they’re calling hate groups,” said Stella Rouse, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who specializes in immigration politics and Latino communities. “Sometimes it potentially goes too far.”

FAIR’s executive director, Bob Dane, called the labeling of his organization as a hate group a “sad common new tactic to simply shut down the debate.” Dane said that the group does not advocate for discriminatory policies.

The Green Party joined other progressives in protesting the Cockeysville Library forum on Oct. 3. Video posted to Facebook shows protesters shouting during a presentation by Eric Ruark, from NumbersUSA, an immigration reform group.

“Because of the degree of shout-downs and disruption, there was no real ability to have a discussion, which was the point of the program,” Haire said.

A police officer was dispatched to the Cockeysville event, Baltimore County Police spokesman Shawn Vinson said. A library official told the officer people inside were becoming loud and requested he “make sure the debate did not become physical,” Vinson said. The officer “did not observe any disruption or disturbance.”

Vinson said a supervisor at the Wilkens police precinct, which covers Catonsville, called Haire ahead of tonight’s event “to determine if any measures on the part of the police department would be necessary to preserve the peace.” Haire told police the event was canceled.

Haire said she received at least 14 emails in the weeks leading up to the Catonsville event, not counting those the other board members received. Some, she said, warned about “the potential for violence.” Complaints about the program began in September on social media, she said.

Catonsville resident Pat Costa sent the League a petition with more than 100 signatures urging them to disinvite the speaker from FAIR.

The League held a similar event in 2015 with a speaker from FAIR, but Haire said it did not draw the same reaction.

“I think there is, across the country, a change in the general demeanor of disagreement,” said Richard Vatz, a Towson University professor whose fields include political persuasion and rhetoric. “Because of Donald Trump and opposition to Donald Trump, both groups have severely limited civil disagreement.”

In a letter to the League, Radke urged organizers to cancel the forum, calling it a “public safety disaster just waiting to happen.”

“A discussion on immigration is one that needs to occur through the legislative process during legislative hearings, and not as an open forum at a public library where children and families gather,” Radke wrote.

Rouse, of the University of Maryland, she has seen rising concerns about public safety at political events across the country over the last 18 months, due to escalating rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. Under such circumstances, she said, canceling or altering events could be the best choice.

“An honest debate where ideas are exchanged might have a greater effect of getting people to think more broadly about their position,” she said. “But with yelling and screaming, people tend not to see fault on their own side. It just reinforces what a toxic environment we live in.”

But, Rouse said, for groups combating FAIR’s positions, “I don’t know how you disarm the counterargument unless you let them speak.”

Haire said the League does not invite those who engage in hate speech, and that when people claimed FAIR was using hate speech, the League investigated those claims. She said they found that previous speeches by Hanen were “in the bounds of civility.”

The pressure and subsequent cancellation, Haire said, were a “missed opportunity” for the protesters to change minds. “They could have had an impact on the discussion. The whole idea is to move these discussions forward, to make progress toward solutions.”

The protesters maintain that debating the FAIR representative was not an option.

“The issue is, you’re giving them legitimacy, just by being there,” Radke said.

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