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Much more to symposium than Cobb's presence

GRAND FORKS -- On Oct. 7, the UND Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies hosted a symposium titled "Cobbsville? A White Supremacist Takeover of Leith, N.D.?"...

GRAND FORKS -- On Oct. 7, the UND Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies hosted a symposium titled "Cobbsville? A White Supremacist Takeover of Leith, N.D.?"

The symposium was meant to provide an academic forum to analyze the historical, sociological, cultural and legal implications of white supremacist Craig Cobb's attempted takeover of a tiny town in the western part of this state.

Because there has been confusion, we believe it is important to clarify that Cobb was not invited to participate as part of the panel of experts. He apparently found out about it on his own and attended the symposium as a member of the public. He raised his hand to speak as a member of the audience, and he was afforded the same consideration extended to other members of the audience (the ground rules were one question/comment each for 90 seconds).

The next day, the Herald published a story headlined "White supremacist attends UND symposium on 'Faces of Hatred.'" The article gave a brief description of Cobb's activities in Leith and why they are controversial. But given that six experts on the subject took part in the symposium and shared their insights into some of the deeper social science aspects of the situation, we were somewhat surprised and dismayed that the article included no identification of the symposium participants (with the exception of the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies director) or the substance of their remarks.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas, set up the historical context for the Leith situation by providing an overview of the neo-Nazi movement in the Midwest, with a particular emphasis on the activities of the Cobb-affiliated National Socialist movement.

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Justin Berg, UND assistant professor of sociology, discussed sociological and statistical data related to certain important trends and developments in race demographics and hate group activities.

Eric Burin, UND professor of history and an expert on the history of slavery and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, analyzed the larger historical implications of the Cobb situation and its relation to other social controversies currently facing North Dakota.

And Tammy Pettinato, UND assistant professor of law, addressed the legal issues raised by the situation including potential options that both the local and federal governments could pursue under the current law. She also considered possible gaps in the law and whether we should perhaps consider reforming it to adjust to situations such as this.

We understand that most newspaper articles are written with severe space limitations, and we know that colorful details often are crucial to the success of a story. But we also feel the Herald's story, which focused on Cobb's attendance, actions during the symposium and comments to the reporter, would have benefited from describing the core purposes of the symposium as well as its most salient remarks.

We believe the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies struck the right balance in terms of letting Cobb speak under the same rules established for public comment and in not letting him dominate or disrupt the proceedings. We merely would like to point out that the Herald also could have struck the right balance in its story by leavening some of the color with some of the substance. That would have made for a better article and a better informed public.

Gordon is director of the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies at UND. Brockman-Hawe is scholar-in-residence at the center.

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