This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
Free speech, which has had its ups and downs on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus over the years, suffered an embarrassing setback Tuesday night. A crowd's vocal protests, pepper spray from the campus police and a window broken by a fist-pounding protester disrupted an appearance by Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman.
Tancredo was forced to leave without completing his speech at Bingham Hall. The university is left to pick up the pieces, if it can, of its reputation as a place where free speech is welcomed.
The most misguided of the protesters would say Tancredo got just what he deserved. He's widely known as an extreme foe of illegal immigrants (he would severely limit legal immigration as well). Over the years Tancredo's views have placed him squarely in the discredited, nativist tradition of earlier anti-immigration movements. His run for the most recent Republican presidential nomination failed to last even to 2008, and he didn't seek re-election to Congress. His current publicity vehicle is Youth for Western Civilization, which invited him to UNC and of which he is honorary national chairman.
Some of Tancredo's statements have indeed been hateful and obnoxious, but that's not the issue when a controversial speaker comes to a college or university – not at all.
When protesters hound a speaker off a campus stage, that campus forfeits some of its standing as a beacon of tolerance and inquiry. When a well-known figure on one side of a public policy question is silenced, legitimate debate is the loser. (At UNC, the focus was on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who are North Carolina high school graduates, an issue on which this editorial page takes the opposite view from Tancredo.) And when a professional firebrand goads people into disruptive acts, he wins – and they end up with egg on their faces.
To read the complete editorial, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.