The College Republicans at Penn State University wanted to enter the debate about the nation's borders by playing a "Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game."
People would be invited to "catch" group members wearing orange shirts symbolizing illegal aliens.
Amid the student outcry that ensued, they softened their plan to an illegal immigration awareness day in which leafleting and speech-making would let both sides air their views on immigration policies.
But that hasn't entirely erased the bad feeling over the campus event, now planned for Wednesday.
Yesterday, about 150 students and some faculty opposed to the idea rallied in the student union building. And the university itself joined the fray, urging the College Republicans to "re-think their approach as a step toward fostering civility on campus."
Penn State President Graham Spanier labeled the original idea "unproductive and offensive."
On any college campus, one person's crusade against intolerance is another person's bow to political correctness. Even as groups such as the Black Caucus and Latino Caucus registered passionate objections, others said they viewed the Republicans' plan -- the game included -- as a reasonable way to highlight concern about the nation's porous borders.
"You have to be creative to get students to listen to you," sophomore Chuck Knight wrote in a letter to the editor published recently in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian. "For that matter, you have to be creative anytime you are trying to raise concern about something."
An official with the College Republicans seemed at a loss yesterday to understand the continuing outrage as he stood within earshot of speakers who decried his group as discriminatory and insensitive.
"They're against something that no longer exists," said Seth Bender, 20, chairman of the group and a sophomore from Lebanon. "I think they're just misinformed."
He said the controversy helped publicize the event. But he also said even some within his organization were uneasy with the original idea.
In recent days, the dispute over immigration and immigrant rights has turned out hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across the nation. Such debate belongs on a university campus, said Penn State officials, and the Republicans' event as currently proposed, complete with a forum in which illegal immigration and the benefits of legal immigration are to be discussed, seems at least to be an attempt to do that.
"The Constitution allows College Republicans and other student groups to hold expressive events, even ones that may be deemed offensive by some," said Penn State spokesman Tysen Kendig.
Still, he said, there is lingering ill will that the event would be staged in any form. Some who registered complaints with the administration said they saw uncomfortable likenesses to the original game, down to participants designated to discuss illegal immigration wearing orange shirts.
Similar events staged by conservative students on other campuses, including the University of North Texas, have stirred emotions. And that was true at Penn State yesterday as protesters like alumnus Michael Benitez called the event unfit for his alma mater:
"If we're supposed to be a place that promotes diversity and social intelligence, why is this happening?"
Wade Malcolm contributed to this report. Bill Schackner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1977.