UNC's speech

When a disruptive protest kept a controversial speaker from giving his anti-immigration talk, everyone lost.

April 16, 2009 

Free speech, which has had its ups and downs on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus over the years, suffered an embarrassing setback Tuesday night. A crowd's vocal protests, pepper spray from the campus police and a window broken by a fist-pounding protester disrupted an appearance by Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman.

Tancredo was forced to leave without completing his speech at Bingham Hall. The university is left to pick up the pieces, if it can, of its reputation as a place where free speech is welcomed.

The most misguided of the protesters would say Tancredo got just what he deserved. He's widely known as an extreme foe of illegal immigrants (he would severely limit legal immigration as well). Over the years Tancredo's views have placed him squarely in the discredited, nativist tradition of earlier anti-immigration movements. His run for the most recent Republican presidential nomination failed to last even to 2008, and he didn't seek re-election to Congress. His current publicity vehicle is Youth for Western Civilization, which invited him to UNC and of which he is honorary national chairman.

Some of Tancredo's statements have indeed been hateful and obnoxious, but that's not the issue when a controversial speaker comes to a college or university -- not at all.

When protesters hound a speaker off a campus stage, that campus forfeits some of its standing as a beacon of tolerance and inquiry. When a well-known figure on one side of a public policy question is silenced, legitimate debate is the loser. (At UNC, the focus was on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who are North Carolina high school graduates, an issue on which this editorial page takes the opposite view from Tancredo.) And when a professional firebrand goads people into disruptive acts, he wins -- and they end up with egg on their faces.

Contrast what happened at Chapel Hill with the treatment Tancredo received earlier this year at American University in Washington, D.C. There, students agreed on a course of "peaceful opposition." They handed out fliers listing the campus' protest policies and urged people attending the talk to be respectful -- and succeeded. As an official with AU's Multicultural Affairs office pointed out, "If you silence them [Youth for Western Civilization], you silence us." Some in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night made similar points, but they were overwhelmed by the disruptive acts of hard-liners.

Some of the blame falls on the UNC campus administration. Although Tancredo's Washington visit was peaceful, at least one of his appearances elsewhere -- at Michigan State in 2006 -- touched off violence. And with its substantial population of Latin American immigrants, North Carolina is a Ground Zero in a highly emotional controversy. The Tancredo talk had trouble written all over it.

It's easy to second-guess campus officials who must have been torn between providing more security -- and a more secure venue -- and playing up the potential for disruption. But they made the wrong call. Afterwards, Chancellor Holden Thorp spoke of his sorrow at the outcome and apologized to Tancredo. The chancellor should go beyond words to put in place policies assuring that controversial speakers can have their say on a campus that, we thought, had come so far from the infamous Speaker Ban days of the 1960s.

That ban, directed at communists, was imposed by the General Assembly. The protesters' "ban" on Tancredo wasn't. There is something even more hurtful about self-inflicted wounds.

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