WWU student group to host local journalists, city members for panel discussion on naming of public memorials

BELLINGHAM – Western Washington University’s Society of Professional Journalists student chapter will host a panel about how public memorials are named and covered by news outlets, featuring prominent historians, journalists, public officials and students.

The panel will be held from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1 on Western’s Bellingham campus.

What’s in a name? Increasingly, everything. Public memorials, whether statues of past American “heroes” or place names of prominent citizens assigned to natural features and public infrastructure – are like road signs along the highway of the nation’s past. Many are old, outdated and downright confusing when viewed through a windshield of modern cultural norms; and many have made headlines in recent times as the nation struggles to come to grips with a history that often fails to jibe with modern perspectives.

The recent debate over public memorials – from the removal of statues in the deep South to the “unnaming” of a bridge in Bellingham – illustrate that tussle, and raise important societal questions moving forward. Among them:

- Who decides how and when a public memorial is appropriate? Is the former standard for namings – usually an advocacy group approaching a public body with a request for same – appropriate? What standards should government apply to this process, if a process is clearly defined?

- What is an appropriate response for requests to “un-name” features named after historical figures now considered, at least by some, to be inappropriate?

- Does removing or renaming a public memorial constitute “erasing history?” Why or why not, and who makes those decisions?

- From a strictly historical standpoint, can or should society “compartmentalize” historical figures? Should one part of a person’s life, or even a single comment now considered offensive, negate their overall contribution to society when public namings are considered?

- What does the ongoing stream of debate over this issue suggest about our society?

Join Western Washington University’s Society of Professional Journalists chapter and a panel of historians, journalists, public officials and students for an engaging discussion of these questions and more.

Panelists include:

- Historian, former journalist, Vietnam War veteran, and former San Juan Islands National Historical Park chief of interpretation Mike Vouri, author of “The Pig War: Stand-off at Griffin Bay.”

- WWU Professor Laura Laffrado, an expert in English literature whose historical research of Bellingham writer Ella Higginson has resurrected the work of a once-nationally famous author. Laffrado is heading a current campaign to establish a campus memorial to the late author.

- Veteran journalist and WWU adjunct journalism professor Ron Judd, whose recent research includes an examination of the 1939 Red Scare firing of former Western president Charles H. Fisher at the hands of a group of Bellingham citizens led by Bellingham Herald editor Frank I. Sefrit. Sefrit’s brazen attack on academic freedom apparently was not considered when a prominent North Cascades peak was named Mount Sefrit, in his honor, after his death.

- Communications Director for the City of Bellingham, former WWU journalism instructor, former journalist, and WWU journalism program alumna Vanessa Blackburn.

- WWU student journalist Suzanna Leung, who covered the Pickett Bridge for The Western Front during summer 2017.

Registration isn’t required, but is recommended, as the room has not yet been determined. Event information will be updated on the WWU SPJ event page, https://www.facebook.com/events/172437616821587/. For more information on the event or WWU SPJ, contact wwuspj@gmail.com.