In 1963, state legislators silenced communist speech on campus. Forty-six years later, protesting students silenced a conservative former congressman because of his views on immigration.
The result is the same: a black mark on UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation for academic freedom.
On Wednesday, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp and UNC System President Erskine Bowles both telephoned former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado to apologize after student protesters shouted Tancredo down as he tried to give a speech. Students smashed a window a few feet from where he stood and blocked his face with a banner that said, “No One Is Illegal.”
The incident clearly touched a nerve, Thorp said. His phone rang steadily from the early hours Wednesday. None were happy callers.
“Some were from alums, and a lot were from all over the country,” he said. “We didn’t get anything from anybody happy with the way things went. The fact that it got out of hand is embarrassing.”
Thorp has promised an investigation that might lead to criminal charges or other disciplinary measures. Specifically, students could be punished for vandalism and pushing a police officer, he said.
Thorp said he was disappointed the students didn’t uphold the university’s commitment to free speech and diverse viewpoints.
“If he really means that, then I think the university should pay for Congressman Tancredo to come back and give his speech and ensure his security,” said Kevin DeAnna, a 26-year-old graduate student at American University in Washington who founded Youth for Western Civilization last year.
DeAnna works as a deputy field director for a conservative education group, the Leadership Institute, which paid Tancredo $3,000 for his UNC appearance. A month ago, the institute sponsored Tancredo’s speech at American, where hundreds of students wore black in silent protest. Tancredo said those students let him speak, whereas their UNC-CH counterparts “overwhelmed” nine campus police officers.
The American students “respected our right to free speech,” DeAnna said.
Thorp said the university will look at how to better prepare for controversial speakers.
Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina, said the protesters’ actions amounted to “de facto censorship.” She had seen video of Tancredo’s appearance on YouTube.
“This is disturbing,” she said. “That video is chilling.”
Rudinger said Tancredo has the right to express his views against mass immigration, just as students at N.C. State had the right to paint racist remarks against President Barack Obama on the campus Free Expression Tunnel on Election Day last fall.
“Censorship is not the answer to hate speech. Hate speech is protected by the Constitution,” Rudinger said. “If we have the better argument, Americans are pretty smart, and we’re probably going to win the day. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work.”