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Liberals for free speech at UNC

September 22, 2009

The script is almost always the same: a campus conservative group invites a speaker who opposes illegal immigration; angry leftist students denounce him as a white supremacist and shout him down, knocking over tables or breaking a window; the president or chancellor of the university promises to investigate, but no penalty descends on the censors.

At the Universty of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, however, where members of Students for a Democratic Society and some off-campus radicals disrupted a talk by former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo and tried to shout down a second speaker, the standard script went through re-write.

The chancellor of the university, Holden Thorp, did something right, apologizing to Tancredo and offering the conservative group, Youth for Western Civilization, $3000 for a replacement speaker. But then Thorp made a controversial decision about a response to an implied threat against the group and its faculty advisor. The students had chanted “Against racists we will fight, we know where you sleep at night.” An anonymous flier made a similar statement, listing the advisor’s address and telephone number and including his photo. The advisor, emeritus professor Elliot Cramer, said in an email, “I have a Colt .45 and I know how to use it.” Cramer maintained that this was an off-hand, light-hearted comment, but chancellor Thorp suspended him for incivility. This put YWC in jeopardy. It had 30 days to get a new adviser or it would have to disband.

Jay Schalin, who posted a long analysis of the story on the site of the John William Pope Center, wrote: “The focus should not be on the wise-cracking professor, but on the anonymous individuals who created the threatening flier. It would be hard to imagine that, if a collection of radical right-wing groups were conspiring to deny a liberal organization of its right to hold meetings and speak freely on campus by using violent and threatening means, that the official response would not be swift and severe.”

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, writing on his web site The Volokh Conspiracy, said: “Now it may well be that publishing a person’s home address is protected speech; I have so argued, and some courts agree, though there’s controversy about that. But surely publishing a group advisor’s home address—against a backdrop of criminal thuggery (albeit short of deadly violence) aimed at that group—is indeed potentially threatening. It seems to me that a professor, no less than anyone else, is entitled to respond by expressing a willingness to defend himself.” Such a professor, he said, should not be removed as an advisor on grounds of lack of “civility” as the chancellor did in this case.

Though the chancellor acted with the customary lameness of top college officials in free speech cases, there’s unusual good news here. The threatened advisor, Elliot Cramer, is no conservative, but an “old-fashioned liberal” and an ACLU member, who took the job because he thought WTC ‘s right to free speech should be protected. He said he will stay on as an unofficial advisor. Two new faculty members agreed to act as official advisors. They do not appear to be conservatives either, and the new president of WTC, senior chemistry major Nikhil Patel, announced, “I am not conservative by any measure.” Liberals and other free-speech advocates coming to the aid of campus conservatives is a rarity. College presidents and chancellors acting badly in these cases is not.

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