UNC Rejects the Heckler’s Veto

By on April 24, 2009

The First Amendment scored a victory this week at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill when UNC removed and arrested six hecklers who disrupted a campus speech by former Virginia congressman and illegal immigration opponent Virgil Goode.

Goode was invited to speak on campus by a group called Youth for Western Civilization. Problems with disruptive hecklers had been expected in the wake of a speech last week by former Congressman Tom Tancredo, another outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, which abruptly ended when violence erupted. During Tancredo’s speech, a window was shattered and police used pepper spray to disperse unruly protestors and escort Tancredo out of the building.

Rather than risk a repeat of that embarrassing episode, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp chose to defend free expression on campus. In a campus-wide e-mail following the violence prompted by Tancredo’s speech, Thorp announced that he had apologized to Tancredo for the disruption, asked campus police to pursue criminal charges against disruptive protestors if warranted, and stated, "Carolina’s tradition of free speech is a fundamental part of what has made this place special for more than 200 years. Let’s recommit ourselves to that ideal." Thorp continued in this vein after the attempt to disrupt Goode’s speech, saying, "I regret that six protesters had to be arrested, but they gave us no choice … They ignored our warnings, and their disruptive behavior was completely at odds with what we expect here at Carolina." Thorp’s actions are a sharp contrast to UMass Amherst‘s craven capitulation to the "heckler’s veto" during a similar situation in March.

If Thorp is serious about UNC’s commitment to free speech, it could result in a real turning point for liberty in the University of North Carolina system, which has been no stranger to First Amendment controversies during the last decade. Last fall, the system made national headlines when two students painted violent racial epithets about then-President-Elect Obama on the walls of North Carolina State University’s Free Expression Tunnel, prompting the establishment of a UNC system-wide commission on hate crimes (despite the fact that, as objectionable as the graffiti was, the students in this case committed no crime). UNC-Chapel Hill itself attacked religious freedom on campus in 2003 and 2004 in failed (thanks to FIRE) attempts to prevent Christian organizations from using religious criteria to choose their leaders. And in 2005, UNC-Greensboro made the mistake of trying to punish protestors who challenged the university’s unconstitutional free speech zone policy. FIRE’s victory in that shameful case was recounted in a PBS documentary. Finally, in one of FIRE’s oldest cases, UNC-Wilmington actually accessed and turned over some of Professor Mike Adams’ e-mails to a student whom he had harshly criticized for blaming the United States for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Thorp, who began as chancellor in 2008, deserves to be commended for standing up for the principle of free speech in an academic environment where doing so is almost never the easiest course of action. Thorp also struck just the right note in dealing with the protestors. The arrest of students is to be regretted, of course, and as someone who has made a career of defending students’ rights, it pains me to learn of students being taken away in shackles. However, students must also understand that their actions have consequences and that their political preferences must not be allowed to get in the way of the First Amendment principles that lie at the foundation of our freedom. Setting off fire alarms and breaking windows in an attempt to shut down a speech is not an exercise of free speech; it is mob censorship. Chancellor Thorp should be praised for understanding and acting on this basic principle.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Wilmington University of North Carolina – Greensboro University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill North Carolina State University – Raleigh