April 23, 2009
How to Silence an Unruly Mob of Campus RadicalsBy Jay Schalin
Last week, an unruly mob of radical protestors at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill chased former U.S. congressman and anti-illegal immigration spokesman Tom Tancredo from his speaking engagement. Police were forced to use pepper spray at one point while protestors tried to push their way into an already packed room. Tancredo stopped speaking when protestors outside the building broke a window in the lecture hall (video).
Last night, it initially appeared that a similar mob might do the same to another former congressman, Virgil Goode, a Virginian who is an outspoken opponent of affirmative action and shares views on immigration to Tancredo. Yet between Goode's persistence, improved security precautions by the university, and some support from members of the audience, this time it was the mob that was silenced.
The night began much as it did the previous week. Radical groups again circulated flyers urging students to protest, and again met in The Pit (a campus gathering spot) for some pre-speech preparations. They danced and paraded, some wearing giant masks of the three monkeys of speak, hear, and see no evil fame. "Hey, ho, YWC has got to go," they chanted.
YWC stands for Youth for Western Civilization, a new campus organization that invited both Tancredo and Goode to the Chapel Hill campus. Protestors have publicly characterized the YWC as white supremacists for their conservative views. One of the main organizers stated that the earlier protest's main goal was to stop the YWC from inviting more speakers like Tancredo.
The protestors' justification for their antics is that the opinions of conservatives like Tancredo and Goode qualify as "hate speech" and therefore are not protected under free speech statutes. Furthermore, they claimed that their shouting and noise-making while Tancredo tried to lecture does qualify as protected speech.
When Riley Matheson, the founder of the UNC chapter of YWC, took the stage to introduce Goode, protestors in the audience again responded with chants, catcalls and profanity to drown him out, as they had done with Tancredo. They did the same when Goode took his place behind the lectern.
Yet Goode persevered, despite frequent interruptions and disruptions. And in the end, he won over the crowd with his honesty, factual knowledge, and sense of fairness. At the end of the evening, there seemed to be the same sense of victory among the supporters of Goode and the YWC that the protestors displayed after Tancredo's appearance. Only a few protestors lingered outside the building when the event was over, unlike the week before when their full number continued protesting and socializing for at least an hour.
The university's security preparations and enforcement were very different than they were the week before. Whereas Tancredo had to speak in a lecture hall that seated little more than 100, with no stage, no podium, and no microphone, on the day of Goode's speech the venue was changed from a similar lecture hall to the auditorium in the student union, which seats 390.
The room change gave Goode some separation from his audience, whereas the antagonistic audience a week before was right on top of Tancredo. The raucous crowd of between 175 and 200 people that nearly doubled the capacity of the small lecture hall was easily able to drown out Tancredo's voice. This was not the case with Goode in the larger room, where there were only an estimated 150 people in attendance.
The campus police had a strong presence for Goode's speech, with as many as 20 officers inside and outside the building. And, while, the week before, the few police (and no administrators) on hand did nothing to prevent the outbursts by Tancredo's audience members, shortly into Goode's lecture, a woman shouted at the speaker, "F--- you!" Winston Crisp, the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, took the stage and said, "This is going to be the only time I say this. Whether you are cheering or jeering, we are going to ask you to allow the speaker to make his comments. If you persist in behavior that disrupts this program, the DPS (Department of Public Safety) officers will be asked to remove you from the premises."
While the police didn't remove everybody who tried to disrupt Goode's speech thereafter, they did make six arrests for disorderly conduct. Two protestors prompted their arrest by leaping to their feet and unfurled a banner that said "F--- Racism." One of them shouted loudly, "I'm a Southern working man (this was likely intended to mock Goode who had been discussing the displacement of American workers by illegal immigrants) and I say ‘F---- Racism'."
The ranks of the protestors had thinned considerably from last week as well, diminishing their potential for mischief. While protest organizers, largely members of the local chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, were able to draw between 75 and 100 for the Tancredo speech, there were no more than 40 present for Goode.
While Goode's speech initially suffered from the radicals' outbursts, many in the crowd appreciated his unassuming yet forthright manner. To start the question and answer period, Aaron Maisto, a sophomore from Charlotte who majors in economics and public administration, said, "I disagree with probably 95 percent of your opinions. That said, I must applaud you for maintaining your composure in the face of some pretty rude people."
Matthew Klinestiver, an African-American junior in Cultural Studies, prefaced his question by suggesting that Goode's opinions on affirmative action seemed predicated upon the assumption that it was always blacks who were superseding more qualified whites by receiving preferential treatment. "The presence of other races is complicating that picture," he said, adding that in many prestigious colleges it is Asians who are often more qualified but not admitted in favor of whites. "So you're not opposed to seeing a Harvard that's 20 percent white?"
Goode had already stated that "I don't believe in (racial) preferences. I think the greatest weight by far should be given to objective standards like SAT scores and grade point averages." He responded to Klinestiver by saying that if he needed a doctor, he wanted that doctor to be "the smartest person around." He later added "if Asian students have the highest SATs and the highest GPAs...then they should get the slots in Harvard.
Klinestiver said he didn't know much about Goode before the speech, and had not yet formed an opinion of the congressman, but said of the Virginian's answer, "I thought it was appropriate."
Matheson used the changing tide of sentiment to get in a dig at the protestors, who, in the previous week, appeared to directly target him with a threatening chant: "Against racists, we will fight. We know where you sleep at night."
This week, when one protestor shouted at him, "We know where you live," Matheson responded, "Anybody who is interested in exploring becoming a member of Youth for Western Civilization can contact me by email, or just stop by my house...since you already know where I live. I've got a 12-guage."
At the end of the evening, the radicals no longer appeared to be an emerging force on campus, as they did after the previous week's incident. Instead, they merely seemed juvenile, irrational, and pathetic.
Wednesday night's outcome helped to erase the stain on UNC's tradition of free speech that occurred the week before. At the very least, a workable precedent has been established for how to provide an atmosphere conducive to the free exchange of ideas when a conservative speaker comes to campus.
Jay Schalin is a senior writer with the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina.