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Twenty years ago this month, Linn-Benton Community College President Greg Hamann was working as the chief finance and operations officer at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, a town of about 6,400 people in the northwest corner of the state.

Laramie was miles away, in Wyoming's southwest corner, but Hamann knew the territory: His job often required him to travel to that area, and he often found himself on morning runs on isolated roads outside the city.

So when news broke about Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who had been pistol-whipped, tortured and left to die, tied to a fence on one of those remote roads, Hamann knew the territory.

"When I heard the news, I knew that place, the barren emptiness of the Wyoming high desert, the seldom-traveled road that would leave Matthew unnoticed for 18 hours, still tied to that fence," Hamann told me. 

Hamann's campus was one of the many locations where vigils were held for Shepard, who died of his injuries nearly a week later, on Oct. 12, 1998. 

"I remember the deep sense of anguish, sorrow and darkness that settled over my campus even as we lit candles in vigil, hoping for some light of redemption," Hamann said. "But mostly, I think what we got was an indelible scar, a wound that never quite healed and now, 20 years later, seems to be opening back up."

Matthew Shepard still is in the news: Last week, his ashes finally were laid to rest at the Washington National Cathedral, alongside remains from other notable individuals, such as Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Shepard's parents have held onto the ashes all the years for fears that the burial site of their son would be a constant magnet for vandals.

Wyoming remains one of five states that have not passed laws focused on crimes motivated by the victim’s identity, such as sexual orientation. President Barack Obama signed a federal hate crime prevention act named after Shepard in 2009. (One of the murderers told The Associated Press recently that Shepard's sexual orientation was not a factor in the murder, that the intent was to rob Shepard, but considerable evidence suggests otherwise.)

Hamann's at LBCC now, but for him, the case still raises the same question it raised 20 years ago: "How do we best fight against hate? ... It's very timely for us as a campus. How do we address the issue of hate speech on our campus?"

Hamann and other LBCC officials have had the relative luxury of observing how the issue has played out on other campuses, and close observation of incidents elsewhere has strengthened Hamann's resolve on one critical point: "You don't respond to hate speech with more hate. ... The more that we talk, the less likely we will be to have the explosive polarizing that has appeared on many campuses."

LBCC worked hard last year to develop new policies regarding freedom of expression and academic freedom, and Hamann is proud of that work. But, as he wrote this month in a report to the campus, "the real work is still ahead. ... As we begin this new year, we now need to live individually and collectively in ways that respect and promote these freedoms, and we need to learn how to do so in ways that develop and preserve the culture of inclusion that we seek."

Or, as he put it to me, "Now, we have to figure out the details."

One option, of course, would be to "blatantly condemn hate speech and shove it off my campus. But I don't see how that would lead us to a more inclusive campus."

One of the challenges in that effort is coming up with a workable definition of hate speech. Hamann starts with the understanding that hate speech is protected under the Constitution's First Amendment: "People get to say hateful things," he said. "But when it happens, what do we do? Our strategy is to engage with it."

That engagement isn't easy, he admitted and pointed to work by neuroscientists such as David Eagleman, who argues that humans are hard-wired to react to human differences as if they are threats. But "the fact that you feel threatened doesn't mean that you are threatened," he said.

At its heart, the idea driving this work at LBCC is the idea that authentic conversations, real discussions, are our best tools to battle hate — that to merely banish hate speech to some dark corner only allows hatred to fester unnoticed. It's an idea that sometimes seems hopelessly overmatched against a rising tide of hatred.

But, however idealistic it may seem, it remains our best defense.

It might be our only defense. (mm)

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