Just Say No to Radical Intimidation

On April 14th, an unruly mob of radical protestors at UNC-Chapel Hill chased former U.S. congressman and anti-immigration spokesman Tom Tancredo from his speaking engagement. Police used pepper spray 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.

On April 22nd, 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 in the previous week. Radical groups again circulated flyers urging students to protest, and again met in The Pit (a frequent campus gathering spot) for some pre-speech preparations. “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 YWF as white supremacists. One of the main organizers stated that the earlier protest’s main goal was to stop the YWF 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 is therefore 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 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.

The university’s security preparations and enforcement were very different than they were the week before. Whereas Tancredo spoke 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 an auditorium that 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 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.”

Police made 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 and I say ‘F—- Racism’.”

The ranks of the protestors had thinned considerably from the previous week as well. 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.

Many in the crowd appreciated appreciated Goode’s 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.”

At evening’s end, 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, or pathetic.

And the university might have found the proper model for enabling controversial speakers to speak on campus without intimidation. That is not to say there couldn’t be stronger enforcement—Crisp should have made his warning at the first improper shout, instead of waiting several minutes into the speech, and police should have truly practiced zero-tolerance policy instead of permitting some disruptive behavior to continue. But the school did make a strong statement that free speech is allowed on campus.