UNC leaders apologize for speech fiasco

Staff WritersApril 16, 2009 

  • Sponsors of the talk

    The UNC-Chapel Hill group that brought Tom Tancredo to campus is Youth for Western Civilization.

    Tancredo is the organization's national chairman; at UNC-CH, a fledgling chapter has eight members.

    On its Web site, the national organization bills itself as the west's "right wing youth movement" and an organization "for students who believe Western Civilization is moving in the wrong direction and want to do something about it. This is for people who are proud to be members of the West and want to work in defense of their people, culture, and traditions."

    Opponents of the talk

    The protest was put together by a handful of campus student groups and led by Tyler Oakley, a graduate student in the romance languages department and a member of Students for a Democratic Society. That group has dozens of active members on campus with a national membership in the thousands.

    Oakley said several other campus activist groups joined with his in the protest.

— 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."

Tancredo is known as one of the nation's most strident voices against immigration, both legal and illegal. But on Tuesday he never got to make his argument against in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. The broken glass, and the subsequent use of pepper spray by police, shut down the event while Tancredo was merely describing recent legislation aimed at providing such benefits.

News reports and online video footage prompted outrage across the state and nation Wednesday. In Washington, the founder of Youth for Western Civilization, whose UNC chapter sponsored the talk, called on Thorp to invite Tancredo back on the university's dime. Tancredo seized upon the protest as a fundraising opportunity for his political action committee, Team America.

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."

Charges are possible

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.

Say that with money, a Trancredo supporter said.

"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.

The UNC-CH event began with Riley Matheson, who is the leader of the school's Youth for Western Civilization chapter, explaining his organization's conservative politics and introducing Tancredo. No one set guidelines for audience behavior. Tancredo refused to speak as long as protesters were shouting him down, but he tolerated large banners until two women blocked his face with one.

"We always anticipate civil discourse," said campus police spokesman Randy Young. "That doesn't always turn out to be the case."

Thorp pledges reforms

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."

Roger Perry, chairman of the UNC-CH board of trustees, called the protest shameful.

"All thoughts and views should have freedom of expression on our campus," he said.

Events are planned at both N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill next week so students can discuss how to protect free speech and oppose hate speech on their campuses.

jesse.deconto@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8760

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