E-mails from the Edge

ON THE FIRST Monday of this month, thousands of University of Minnesota students got spammed by an unauthorized mass e-mailing sent out by an upstart, web-only publication called the University Speaker. Declaring itself to be "the real campus newspaper," the mailing mixed stories with such provocative headlines as "Speaker to confront the dangers of homosexuality" with rallying cries like "Wanted: Christian students who believe in family values and the Conservative ideals of the founding fathers."

Since May, the Speaker has been bullying its way onto the University's server on a regular schedule. The publication's debut issue hit the wires at the tail end of the spring semester, and its second--which featured the story "Cellular phones offer security with convenience," with a nod to its sponsor, Metro Wireless--followed in June. By fall, say co-founders Scott Provost and Tom Gromacki, their brainchild will be up and running on a weekly basis.

Provost and Gromacki have set up shop in the old business offices of the Minnesota Daily--the university's paper of record--but they make it clear that will be the only common ground between the Daily and their fledgling enterprise. With its office under reconstruction, the Speaker's digs look like a war zone with busted windows and doorways blocked by sheets of plywood. Wooden crates, outdated and half-assembled computers, sales folders, and boxes of leftover french fries clutter the floor. It's out of this chaos that 40-year-old Provost, a seasoned vet of the fundamentalist trenches, and his 21-year-old protégé Gromacki, a poli-sci major--along with a rag-tag team of writers--launch their brand of right-wing rhetoric into cyberspace.

"Conservatives don't feel that they get a fair shot in the Daily," Gromacki says. "It's a monoversity; it's too claustrophobic as far as allowing different viewpoints out." He and Provost want to counter what they see as the Daily's leftist, anti-business, anti-university spin, and they see the Speaker as just the vehicle to do it--as a "marketplace of ideas," a mixed bag of political slants and opinions, a choir singing not to itself but to the online, and plugged-in, masses.

A former Republican candidate for the Minnesota House (Provost was his campaign manager early in the race against Phyllis Kahn), Gromacki wears multiple hats around the office: editor, sales staff, even director of marketing, depending on the day of the week. Provost often refers to him as the Speaker's leader and spokesman, but Gromacki says he's basically just an employee there--that it was Provost's idea to get the thing online in the first place. And by the looks of it, Provost is indeed the man behind the curtain--working the computers, perhaps even working Gromacki, whom he calls "a blank slate."

Provost packs a fleshy 180 pounds onto a 5-foot, 4-inch frame, and tends to flash tired, jagged smiles after one of his occasional self-deprecating jokes. He was raised in a family of techies--give him 20 minutes, and he can talk your ear off about the Internet, vacuum tubes, and transistors. Give him several hours, and in a nervous, high-pitched voice he'll tell you scattered but detailed yarns about his conversion to Christianity at 15; about his years with an apocalyptic Christian cult at a religious compound in Arizona--one with a penchant for training guns on Bureau of Land Management officials; about organizing and camping out with homeless protesters on the steps of St. Louis's City Hall; about running a black-owned UHF station out of a shack near Milwaukee; about the sanctity of life--human, animal, and fetal.

Provost will also tell you about Madison in '91 and '92, where he's still remembered for his one-man campaign against local pro-choice activists. Greg Pechacek of Madison's Capitol City Church characterizes Provost as a "pro-life terrorist," adding that "I don't think he was interested in any kind of violence, but he was serious about what he thought and had extreme ways of telling people about it." Provost's main tactic in Madison was blanketing walls and kiosks with posters, and pestering passersby with fliers in which he often referred to women and fetuses as "meat"; one of his shock slogans said if abortion is legal, rape should be, too. A particularly gruesome graphic accompanies one of his arrest records: It's a crude drawing of "the fetus from hell" with fangs and claws. "He's BACK! He will reconnect his [umbilical] cord of death," reads the caption. "The avenger of the feti is coming to a subconscious mind near you--check your Bible for details."

It wasn't long before he'd left, or got run out of, the state and headed for Minneapolis. In May 1995, the Minnesota Daily did a front-page story on Provost's now-defunct video-résumé business. Part of the story read like an advertisement; the rest quoted job-placement experts saying video résumés--the kind Provost's company sold to customers--just didn't work. After the story ran, Provost showed up at the Daily office and raised hell until the staff felt threatened and he was escorted out of the building. After that, former editor Michele Ames recalls, he repeatedly called the Daily by phone and "just kept coming up like a bad dinner."

Talk to folks at the Minnesota Student Association and you'll get similar stories. One member says Provost used to lurk outside the MSA office and stare at members--disquieting, if not illegal behavior that eventually got him banned from the office. MSA still has records of annoying calls he's made to members and a file of the posters he's hung around the UM campus from the H.A.M.S.T.E.R.s (Heterosexual American Males Striving To Emancipate the Rodents--the title plays off the urban legend about Richard Gere), a "secret society" of conservative students of which Provost is the only "out" member. The posters resemble Minnesota Daily news stories, replete with grammar errors, and featuring headlines such as "Study Shows College Students Don't Need Perverted Sex!" and "Many Dating Relationships, Little more than Prostitution!"

Provost denies the lurking and the calls, chalking that up to "paranoia" about him. About the posters, he says he's interested in free speech and insists that conservatives feel they don't have that constitutional right on campus--something the Speaker hopes to remedy. But considering Provost's history, many around campus wonder about his motives, as well as what interest Provost--who is not a UM student--has in the university community and student organizations.

"Just because you're not a student doesn't mean you're not part of the university community, doesn't mean that you don't have an interest in students," Provost says in defense of his mover-and-shaker role at the Speaker. "There's minds being shaped here."

Allison Hantschel contributed research to this story.

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