Welcoming the Clash of Ideas

Last April, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill appeared to the nation as an affront to freedom and civil society. YouTube videos showed an angry crowd of protesters overcrowding a small lecture hall to shout down former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo, calling him a racist for his stance against illegal immigration, and chasing him from the podium. Writers described how the jubilant protesters issued a chilling threat to the student group that invited Tancredo to campus, chanting, “we know where you sleep at night.”

The leftist mob ruled the campus, or so it seemed. The incident conjured images of bloodlusting Jacobins gleefully carting their victims du jour from kangaroo court to guillotine. And there had been other incidents that suggested that alternative opinions, particularly conservative opinions, were not welcome on the Chapel Hill campus.

Yet half a year later, Chapel Hill seems much the opposite—it is perhaps becoming more like a shining beacon of free speech than a repressive anarchic state imposing an extreme version of political correctness.

In a recent two-week period, student groups and faculty supporters of free speech brought to campus a veritable feast of alternative views. First up, on September 28, was conservative author and National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, brought by the College Republican Club. Then came First Amendment Day—October 1st—produced by the Center for Media Law and Policy (a joint venture of the School of Law and School of Journalism). On October 7th in the following week, the Christian Apologetics Club held a debate between conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and liberal religion professor Bart Ehrman, and the next night, Youth for Western Civilization (the student group that invited Tancredo and that has been the focus of the radicals’ attacks) sponsored a speech by the outspoken former treasurer of the United States under President Reagan, Bay Buchanan.

Finally, on October 13, the Carolina Students for Life presented another debate, this time on the abortion issue. Nadine Strossen, the former president of the ACLU, squared off against pro-life activist Scott Klusendorf.

And what a range of opinions they espoused! It is doubtful that some of their remarks had ever been expressed on this very liberal campus before. Goldberg drew approximately 300 people to hear his lecture on the subject of his book Liberal Fascism. He argued that fascism, long assumed to be an ideology of the right, is actually an ideology of the left. Goldberg explained that Adolf Hitler was both anti-Christian and anti-capitalist, banning prayer in schools in 1935 and even blatantly declaring, “We are socialists.” Goldberg said that, up until Hitler’s breach with Stalin in 1941, the political left in this country and England were enamored with the Nazis. Once the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, however, the American left reversed course and managed to falsely paint fascism as a creature of the right.

First Amendment Day was conceived last spring when UNC’s Media Law Center was contacted by the Liberty Tree Initiative, a coalition of media professionals and academics who seek to promote awareness of free speech, according to journalism professor Cathy Packer, who was in charge of the day-long event. “This seems like a good idea generally,” she said of the Initiative’s promotion of First Amendment awareness, “and the Tancredo incident had just occurred, so we thought students would be especially interested in free speech issues.”

The highlight of the day was a panel “debate” featuring the only student arrested for participating in the Tancredo protest, Haley Koch, and the current president of the YWC, Nikhil Patel. The 50-to-75-person audience got to see first-hand the intransigence of the Tancredo protesters’ mindset, as Koch openly rejected the right to free speech of those with whom she disagreed.

The D’Souza and Ehrman event was sold out long before the curtain rose at UNC’s 1,400-seat Memorial Hall, and the air almost crackled with excitement—an amazing atmosphere for a scholarly campus debate entitled “God and the Problem of Suffering.”

And despite the weighty topic, Ehrman and D’Souza put on a tremendous show that was frequently punctuated with appreciative applause. The two men were warm and respectful to one another, yet they were arguing about perhaps the single most divisive and emotional issue there is—whether God exists.

Ehrman, a former Christian theologian turned agnostic, asked how the Judeo-Christian God, who is presumed to be loving and all-powerful, could permit all the human suffering that exists on earth: genocide, natural disasters that kill many thousands, and cruelly fatal childhood diseases. If the Judeo-Christian God could intervene to help the ancient Israelites, he suggested, why could He not also intervene in more recent years to stop other suffering?

D’Souza countered with a two-part answer to the doubts raised by Ehrman, one explaining “moral evil”—when men are deliberately cruel to one another—and another explaining “natural suffering,” (for things beyond the control of mankind, such as cancer and natural disasters).

Man is an “active agent in the world,” he argued, and the decisions by mortals to do moral evil cannot be blamed on God. If God were to stay man’s hand to prevent all such moral evil, man would no longer be an active agent, but a “robot,” with no free will.

God’s purpose, said D’Souza, is not to save us from all suffering, but “soul formation.” It is mankind’s condition to deal with natural suffering, since it cannot be prevented. Such suffering is intended to maximize our opportunities for virtue, and the same conditions that enable human life on this planet spring from the same source as the conditions that cause natural suffering.

There was considerable apprehension before Bay Buchanan’s October 8 campus appearance. Would protesters again launch an all-out effort to silence the invited guest of the YWC, as they had on the two other occasions? After all, Haley Koch had publicly stated on First Amendment Day said that Buchanan’s appearance would be met with opposition, and suggested that “sometimes things get messy.”

Buchanan’s invitation to speak, and the support given to the YWC by the UNC administration, was perhaps a direct response to the protesters that the YWC would not be silenced.

As it turned out, the new protest fizzled. The effects of the administration’s precautions, the media attention, and First Amendment Day had taken their toll on the dwindling ranks of the protesters—there were no more than a dozen or so at the Buchanan event. Before the speech, Koch and several others participated in a rather silly skit, which made them appear to be more pathetic than threatening.

And while the audience for Buchanan’s talk was smaller than anticipated—between 50 and 75 in all—it did not seem to matter to the speaker, who came out swinging. She began with a discussion of free speech and Tancredo incident. “I saw the videos (of the Tancredo event). That’s not a group of people who are interested in learning,” she said of the protesters. This time, the protesters did not interrupt (with the exception of a handful of catcalls).

She then straight at the heart of the protesters’ rationale for silencing Tancredo and Youth for Western Civilization. “What is racist about wanting to secure your borders and enforce your laws?”

She also described how compassion for illegal aliens who are simply seeking work harms legal citizens. She recalled a conversation with the president of Houston’s Black Chamber of Commerce, who described how that city’s black community was anchored by many black-owned small businesses in construction and other service-sector industries. Most of these businesses failed to survive the flood of illegal immigrants willing to work for very low wages, and this had a devastating effect on Houston’s black neighborhoods.

“And we’re not supposed to talk about it?” she asked incredulously.

Klusendorf built his case against abortion around the idea that once a human egg is fertilized, it becomes a human life that is due the same legal protections as other humans. He said it is merely a human in a different stage of development—the same way a two-year-old is in a different stage of development than a fourteen-year-old.

Strassen did not explicitly try counter that argument, but focused on the well-being of the mother. She said that the issue would “never have a clear answer” for every situation, and therefore the law must enable a woman to make their own decisions depending on how having the child would affect her life, her health, or her mental health, and whether the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Each of these events allotted considerable time for audience members to question and confront the speakers, and the speakers did their best to respond to even the most difficult or even antagonistic questions. Taken as a whole, the two week period was an example of the modern university at its finest—two debates, and lots of other give-and-take about serious matters.

So what accounts for this newfound bounty of intellectual diversity at UNC-Chapel Hill?

One of the most important reasons is an unexpected source: liberal advocates of free speech. Youth for Western Civilization would not exist without its first two faculty advisers, Chris Clemmons and Elliot Cramer—both liberals. (At Chapel Hill, all official student groups must have a faculty sponsor.)

And Chancellor Thorp, who supported the YWC by beefing up security for their events, and by restoring the funds lost at the Tancredo incident so that the YWC could pay Buchanan, espouses a generally liberal philosophy on his blog. Cathy Packer, is a registered Democrat, while Greg Lukianoff, the president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education who was the keynote speaker that day, once interned at the ACLU.

Another reason is that, for the most part, the speakers were invited by student groups, not by the university. The emergence of conservative speakers coincides with a dramatic rise in the number of conservative or free market student groups at Chapel Hill. While the College Republicans and the Carolina Review, a conservative student newspaper, have been around for a longtime, Youth for Western Civilization is only one year old, the Christian Apologetics began in 2005, and the Carolina Students for Life were founded in 2002. Several other right-leaning groups are also of recent vintage.

Of course, the First Amendment plays a central role in this intellectual diversity. It guarantees that speakers, once invited by student groups, cannot be prevented by the administration from coming to a public campus based on the content of their speech (with a few exceptions such as a guest who is known to make direct incitements to actual violence).

Although these recent events on the Chapel Hill campus are promising, the school is still a long way from being a conservative paradise. A few speakers do not make up for the school’s longstanding, deeply ingrained liberal tendencies. Faculty members tilt heavily to the left, and occasional lectures by outside speakers are no substitute for the daily classroom. And, as a recent Pope Center article reveals, there is plenty of faculty resistance to bringing in any outside speakers who contradict the liberal orthodoxy.

Still, the campus is opening up to conservative voices, and students are coming out to hear them in large numbers. With such compelling arguments as were on display recently, those voices are likely to grow with time. Buchanan paraphrased John Milton, saying that “when truth and falsehood tangle, truth wins” (“Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”).

Let this clash of ideas continue, and may the most righteous win.