Adams Center Director Mary Muse has fielded many questions over the years from a wide array of promoters looking to use her facility for everything from gun shows to mixed martial arts fights. But the one question she never saw coming was whether crowds at the Adams Center could pack heat.
"That's not a question I'm frequently asked," Muse says.
The answer, according to Montana University System policy, is a firm no. That means anyone looking to attend Celebrating Conservatism's upcoming Liberty Convention May 21 and 22 better leave the side arms at home.
"If we want to come back to the Adams Center, we need to adhere, right?" says Mona Docteur, foun-der of Celebrating Conser-vatism. "I'm not saying I like it. I don't like that I can't exercise my Second Amendment right. I don't like it at all. But I'm going to be responsible and respectful of the policy."
News of the Liberty Convention—an event Docteur hopes to make an annual happening—spread fast through web forums and conservative talk radio last month. Docteur and her fellow organizers anticipate a crowd of 5,000 from across the country, and have scheduled two nights of speeches from the usual cast of far-right celebrities. The whole thing is designed to promote Celebrating Conservatism's message, Docteur says.
"I've had so many phone calls from all over the country, all over the state, about what it is we're doing that I thought it's probably a good time to think about putting all these people together in one place," Docteur says. "This is our opportunity to do that, to network."
Since its start in December 2008, Celebrating Conservatism has drawn roughly 500 followers to monthly meetings in Ravalli County. The group expanded its activity beyond the educational forums this spring, holding several street-side rallies and backing a number of political initiatives, most notably a questionnaire demanding that Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman form a militia. Many with Celebrating Conservatism insist on carrying firearms during public appearances, and given that habit, critics of the group remain skeptical about Docteur's assurances that members will adhere to university policy.
"In the promotional materials that we've seen about the event, there's never been any mention that firearms are not allowed in campus facilities," says Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN). "When you look at all the other events that Celebrating Conservatism has had...everyone is always encouraged to bring their firearms with them."
Muse and University of Montana Public Safety Director Jim Lemcke say they've had multiple conversations with Celebrating Conservatism organizers about the policy. Neither group anticipates a problem with violations or confrontation.
"They know they have to be good guests," Lemcke says. "Otherwise they won't be able to get this venue again. And it's my understanding they want this venue again."
A compromise on Second Amendment rights may sound implausible for those with Celebrating Conservatism. But the Liberty Convention presents a new opportunity for the group, and Docteur seems ready to embrace the challenge—even without the reassuring weight of her pistol. Specifically, Docteur plans to market the Celebrating Conservatism formula through workshops and a self-published manual (which will cost extra) that explain how to establish conservative groups in other communities.
"So many people feel that they're the only ones," Docteur says. "They don't have the numbers that we do. They think it's just a few of them in their communities."
McAdam says the MHRN has long suspected Docteur of aspiring to expand Celebrating Conservatism's influence outside the state. Her desire to see new chapters founded in other communities confirms those suspicions, he says, and concerns about the group have only grown with the announcement of the Liberty Convention.
"The basic concern remains that this is going to be another attempt for them to widen the net, draw more people in, and hear from a guy who is basically a disgraced law officer talk about how a sheriff should run his county," says McAdam, referring to former Arizona sheriff and staunch states rights activist Richard Mack, one of the guest speakers at the Liberty Convention. "We vehemently disagree that these are the types of people that communities should be looking to learn [from]."
Mack will appear alongside Second Amendment Task Force founder Schaeffer Cox and 2008 Constitution Party presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin, among others. All three have spoken at Celebrating Conservatism meetings in the past.
Criticism of the Liberty Convention headliners—and Celebrating Conservatism itself—does little to dampen Docteur's optimism. Organizations such as the National States Rights Coalition out of South Dakota and the Leadership Institute of Washington, D.C., have reserved booths at the event. And although the costs of monthly meetings at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds pale in comparison to a two-day extravaganza at the Adams Center, Docteur acknowledges no difficulties in fundraising.
"It's just really a walk of faith to get this done," she says, throwing in that the $15 price of tickets and donations from sponsors like Montana's Constitution Party have so far floated the Liberty Convention financially. "I think the challenging thing is that I don't have a bunch of people [helping]. It's just me. I'm the one driving this thing forward."
Docteur's singular leadership also means responsibility for the group adhering to the firearms policy falls to one person.
"I'm a woman of faith," she says. "I just leave it up to God that we've got it under control...I'm just praying that those issues don't come up."