Let free speech thrive on campus - even if it's ugly

STAFF WRITEROctober 5, 2009 




Guest writer Domenic Powell's Faceoff column on Page IB on Monday stated erroneously that retired UNC Chapel Hill Professor Elliot Cramer had called Powell personally a "coward" and a "fascist;" Instead, Cramer used those terms to characterize the creators of anonymous campus fliers and protesters who disrupted a campus speech. Powell was not among them.

Retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor Elliot Cramer is hardly known for his tact. But Chancellor Holden Thorp overreacted in dismissing Cramer as adviser to a student group for making a midnight wisecrack about shooting potential attackers.

Cramer didn't threaten random peace-loving scholars. He responded to the reasonable fear of Nikhil Patel, president of Youth for Western Civilization, that Cramer could be in personal danger.

Patel had sent e-mail to Cramer to warn him of shady militant fliers that called Cramer a supporter of white supremacy, urged students to demand his surrender as the group's adviser -- and ominously included his home address.

"I thought I'd let you know so that you can plan for some sort of protection," Patel wrote. "It seems like an indirect threat to your safety."

It was 14 minutes past midnight. Cramer had just returned home from playing bridge. He was characteristically cocky, or careless.

"I have a Colt .45 and know how to use it," his reply boasted. It should not have troubled anyone not determined to accost him.

But Cramer foolishly copied another student, Haley Koch. She had been arrested after disrupting a campus speech YWC sponsored.

Thorp saw no humor in it. The next day, he insisted Cramer resign as the group's adviser. A reprimand instead should have sufficed.

Then an indulgent judge dismissed the disorderly-conduct charge Koch had earned.

Yet Cramer, who hurt no one, lost his post.

Epilogue: At a campus free-speech forum Thursday, High Censor Koch declared that incorrect views should be verboten on campus.

That's the perilous threat we face, a .45 slug through liberty's valiant heart. Voltaire weeps.

Matthew Eisley is editor of The N&O's North Raleigh News and Midtown Raleigh News.

Adviser not committed to 'civil discourse'


Supposedly, retired UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Elliot Cramer was attempting humor when he copied UNC-CH senior Haley Koch on an e-mail message in which he wrote "I've got a Colt .45 and I know how to use it. ... I used to be able to hit a quarter at 50 feet 7 times out of 10."

Up to that moment, the e-mails had been a private correspondence between Cramer and Nikhil Patel, president of the university's chapter of Youth for Western Civilization, a national conservative organization.

As the public face of YWC's opposition, Koch has received multiple threats of rape and violence from YWC sympathizers since her arrest for disorderly conduct at a YWC-sponsored speech -- a fact she shared with Cramer days before the incident. So, naturally, it was easy for her to miss the joke.

Instead of helping to defuse a very tense public discourse, Cramer consistently made things worse. Before this incident, Cramer called me a "coward" and "fascist" for claims I have made against the YWC leadership as a columnist for The Daily Tar Heel.

Chancellor Holden Thorp asked Cramer to step down as YWC adviser because his remark was "not consistent with the civil discourse" he believes the university is capable of.

It is obvious that Cramer was never committed to that, and the chancellor was right to take a problem professor to task.

A faculty member who cannot stand above insult and threat and help civilize the debate has no business lending advice to undergraduates at Carolina.

Domenic Powell, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Huntersville majoring in history and international studies, is a columnist for The Daily Tar Heel, the campus' student newspaper.

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