On the eve of a politically charged spoken-word event featuring former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic, Indigo Girl Amy Ray and actor Woody Harrelson, a coalition of conservative organizations is exercising its own free-speech rights to voice strident objections to the affair.
On the Clemson, S.C., campus of Clemson University, where the Spitfire Tour is scheduled to make its first showing Thursday (Oct. 1), the local organization Operation Standard is battling what it perceives to be a "homosexual agenda" in the presence of the various musicians, actors and activists.
Beyond circulating petitions opposing the event, exactly how the group and its "allies" plan to protest is unclear.
"Who knows what the deal is," Novoselic said. "If this is just the tip of an iceberg of some big moment or if it's just somebody obsessed and scribbling away."
Spitfire, a multi-faceted, spoken-word event focusing on global affairs and free-speech issues, will make stops over the next month at the University of California at Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., with plans to extend to a full national- and overseas-outing next year. Participants will vary at different stops along the way.
The speakers, including Novoselic, the former bassist for the superstar grunge band Nirvana, and Ray, a singer/guitarist with the Atlanta folk duo Indigo Girls, will address a variety of topics, ranging from Harrelson's focus on hemp and the environment to Ray's planned address on gay rights.
Operation Standard spokesman Mike Griffin said he was aware that several topics will be addressed at the event, but his organization's press release focused specifically on the forum's address of gay rights, claiming Spitfire promotes "the homosexual agenda."
"Queer rights is their goal, and recruiting is their game plan," it states.
Additionally, Griffin condemned the event for "breaking down the morals of society."
Ray had initially planned to speak on Central American democracy issues but changed her topic to gay rights when she learned that the tour's first stop would be in South Carolina, Spitfire spokeswoman Sarah Haynes said. Last spring, Irmo High School in that state canceled a concert by the openly gay duo, spawning two more cancellations at Southern high schools as well as protests blaming the actions on homophobia.
Operation Standard and several other organizations are currently circulating a petition on Clemson's campus in protest of the Spitfire event. Addressed to the president of Clemson, the petition requests that the institution shut down the event and ban "others like it" or refund students' activity fees.
The event is free to those enrolled at Clemson, by virtue of the $20 activity fee the university collects from each student. Admission to the general public is $10. At the U.C. Berkeley stop, there are no student-activity fees to subsidize the event.
In reacting to the news Wednesday night (Sept. 30), Novoselic, who is moderating the tour in addition to speaking about free speech and censorship, called the organizations' perspective "skewed" but added that their collective act of speaking out is, on some level, exactly what the tour is trying to promote.
"That's just being an American -- that's just what being an American is about, getting stuff off your chest and participating in a dialogue of ideas," Novoselic said. "The better idea will win, I'm sure."
Haynes called Griffin's take on the event "off-base."
"One of the speakers has a goal of reaching out to people and letting them understand her life and what it's like to be in her shoes and to promote tolerance and understanding and to basically not discriminate," Haynes said, referring to Ray.
"That's her agenda. Our agenda as a group is to promote free speech. We're encouraging anybody who wants to send out a press release or speak out or show up in protest or get up during the question-and-answer session to do so. That's great; that's what this about."
Operation Standard has linked with such organizations as the Council of Conservative Citizens, Citizens for Traditional Family Values and the Carolina Family Alliance in the protest, Griffin said. He claimed his organization has 300 members and that the other organizations involved have more than 20,000 active supporters.
Griffin said his organization's intent was to "make people aware of what is behind this and what the agenda is, so people will hear it from our point of view."
"It's the people they have speaking on the tour and the people behind the tour, their backgrounds -- predominately very, very liberal and pro-homosexual," Griffin said.
"We've got Woody Harrelson, who is tolerant of the homosexual lifestyle and tolerant of a lot of diverse sexual activities that are going on out there and he's played parts in the movie industry that are not good for this country. ... Basically they are a group of individuals that are breaking down the morals of this country and we are against it."
Griffin said a lawsuit against Clemson University will result if the institution does not comply with the petition's requests to shut down the event and ban "others like it" in the future or refund the $20 per-semester student fees. He referred to a recent court decision in Illinois, ruling that the use of student fees to fund activist groups on campus violates the First Amendment.
Although Griffin said he has no plans to show up at the Spitfire Tour himself, he added that he was aware of plans by others to protest the event, but he refused to provide specifics.
Novoselic said he wasn't quite sure what to make of the protest, and hadn't decided whether he would address the organizations' complaints in his speech Thursday.
"All I know is that what's going to happen Thursday night is we're going to have a great time," he said. "I want to have an engaging time, and I'm really looking forward to it. Maybe they'll be surprises -- maybe this person will stand up and ... who knows?"