Free speech got mugged by clueless radical punks in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night.
Former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo gave up trying to talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill due to disruptive activities by student protestors. The protest was planned and organized by the school’s chapter of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS).
Tancredo was already showing signs of frustration because of his antagonists’ attempts to drown him out and unnerve him with chants, accusations, and obscenities when a window was shattered by protestors outside the building where he was speaking. Cognizant of his physical vulnerability at the front of the over-packed lecture hall, he said, “Alright, I’m outta here,” and sped out of the room.
However, the denial of Tancredo’s right to speak very likely brought his unruly antagonists more ill will among many students whose political views would generally make them allies of the protestors. And the incident might cause the university to finally take the issue of protecting the free speech rights of conservative speakers a little more seriously, instead of cramming them into inadequate lecture halls and “throwing them to the wolves,” as was the case with Tancredo.
Some in attendance expressed anger that their curiosity about either Tancredo or the group that invited him to speak, Youth for Western Civilization, had not been satisfied.
Chelsea Walker, a freshman political science major from Charlotte, said she came because she had heard opposing views that the Youth were both racist and not racist. “I didn’t take want to anybody else’s word on that,” she explained. “I just wanted to hear what they had to say, and I didn’t get to do that because some people don’t seem to be very good at free speech today.”
Because of his strong stance against illegal immigration, Tancredo has become an exceptionally controversial and polarizing figure. In between interruptions, he explained that he was invited “to address higher education for people who are here illegally.”
The Youth for Western Civilization share Tancredo’s views on immigration, but insist their focus is cultural, not racial. Against a backdrop of protestors chanting “racist” and accusing him of being a white supremacist, the group’s Riley Matheson calmly explained in his introduction that “we believe that anyone of any race, any background, any ethnicity can participate in Western civilization.”
The protestors’ bad behavior made Tancredo and Youth for Western Civilization sympathetic figures in some unlikely quarters. Simon Conrad, a junior political science and Spanish major from Charlotte, the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, said he has long been an advocate for pro-immigration policies. He expressed his annoyance at the protestors for preventing Tancredo from speaking, and said of the Youth for Western Civilization, “I would have like to learn more about them…They don’t seem to be radicals. They’re certainly entitled to their opinions as long as they make those opinions known peacefully…Unfortunately, that right of theirs was suppressed tonight.”
The protestors had a dim grasp of (or total disregard for) actual free speech rights. After the event was over, one protestor who wished to remain anonymous tried to justify the attempt to silence Tancredo by saying that “the First Amendment does not protect the right to hate speech.” Yet the “Free Speech” amendment was intended to protect speech considered offensive by some, since there is no reason to protect speech that offends no one. After all, tyrants consider talk of freedom “offensive.”
Walker took note of the demonstrators’ hypocrisy. “They’re big on their own right to free speech, but they silenced his (Tancredo’s) right to speak,” she said.
One of the SDS organizers, Tyler Oakley, a graduate student in romance languages, denied that the aim was to silence Tancredo, but instead intended to “contest his invitation by Youth for Western Civilization.” In other words, they weren’t so much concerned with shutting Tancredo up, as making sure that nobody like Tancredo was ever invited back to campus - a much more efficient way to eliminate the opposition.
But the protestors’ actions belied his claim that they had no intent to silence Tancredo. Their raucous antics were almost non-stop, even after Lizette Lopez, the vice president of the Carolina Hispanic Association, pleaded with them to allow the former congressman to speak: “We would at least like to hear what he has to say if he would like to hear what we have to say."
Oakley went on to say that the SDS would continue to target Youth for Western Civilization, “if the group continues to invite people like Tom Tancredo, who espouses a philosophy of hate.”
Which makes a chant performed outside the building after the event by between 50 and 100 protestors all the more chilling, given the unhinged nature of many of the participants: “Against racists, we will fight. We know where you sleep at night.”
As Tancredo said, “What’s more important, free speech or mob rule?
Tuesday night in Chapel Hill, mob rule won out. Whether the campus has turned against the mob after seeing them for what they really are remains to be seen, likewise whether the university will take any course of action to prevent further violations of the right of conservatives to speak, instead of issuing apologies the following day, as they did here.
And perhaps UNC will knock off its nostalgia for the 1960s, and realize that radical mobs do not improve the public discourse. Since the SDS is an officially sanctioned student group (although many among the protestors were not even students), throwing them off campus and ending any financial benefits they receive from the school would be a good place to start.