Chapel Hill: An Open Letter to Chancellor Holden Thorp

The following open letter, along with numerous other letters of support and statements of solidarity, is from the UNC Chapel Hill SDS website. Though I may not agree with every word of it, I am reposting here as it gets into some of the debate about ‘free speech’ raging over UNC students recent and heroic protest of white supremacist Tom Tancredo. For more information, please see UNC Chapel Hill students stand up for Immigrant Rights.

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An Open Letter to Chancellor Holden Thorp

April 16, 2009

Dear Chancellor Thorp:

I want to express my concerns over the events of April 14, 2009. Currently, I am a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Communication Studies specializing in the rhetoric of social protest. I have been a part of the UNC system for 6 years and a student and member of the UNC-Chapel Hill community for over 4 years. During that time I have witnessed some of UNC’s proudest, shining moments and consider those less shining to be opportunities for growth and progress. As a member of this community, a first-hand witness to the protest events on April 14th, and as a scholar of free speech issues, I believe it is my responsibility to address what I see as precisely one of those opportunities.

In the days leading up to April 14th, I reviewed a number of emails, websites and other literature about the Youth for Western Civilization, Tom Tancredo, and proposed responses to his presence and the presence of the YWC chapter on campus. I attended the event on the 14th as a researcher of social protest and free speech and to stand in solidarity with those students who felt threatened by the presence of the YWC and Mr. Tancredo in our community. During the protest, I watched as some of my students were roughly pushed to the ground by police officers, sprayed with pepper spray, and threatened with a taser. I helped some students to the bathroom on the second floor of Bingham Hall to rinse the spray from their noses, mouths, and eyes. Needless to say I was afraid for their safety and my own. The Students for a Democratic Society released a statement today detailing a side of this story that has been absent from police accounts, the Daily Tar Heel, and other mainstream media sources. In the interests of free speech, that side of the story deserves to be heard, and I encourage you to hear their voices.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned that something violent might occur at this event. A faculty member in my department who researches hate speech sent out an email requesting that anyone deciding to take part in the protest use caution because demonstrations against hate groups can increase the likelihood of violence. I suppose I should have known from my own extensive experience and research that this violence most often comes not from protestors, but from the “protectors” of free speech. It seems only Mr. Tancredo’s free speech rights and safety were of concern on Tuesday, not the free speech rights and safety of your own students. The apology issued to Mr. Tancredo on the grounds that he felt threatened and was unable to be heard was out of place. An apology should be issued to those students who feel threatened by the presence of the YWC and Mr. Tancredo and the violent silencing of their own voices at the hands of police officers.

Other arguments have surfaced since the events that a cursory review of the history of protest would reveal as commonplace. For example, protests just give those protested against the publicity they crave, and there are better ways to deal with these groups. But I ask you, what are these better ways? In your notice to students you suggest that: “There’s a way to protest that respects free speech and allows people with opposing views to be heard. Here that’s often meant that groups protesting a speaker have displayed signs or banners, silently expressing their opinions while the speaker had his or her say.” While I might agree that sometimes silence can be golden, Alice Walker reminds us that “no person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” This demand for silence also reveals a misunderstanding about one of the main goals of protest, both historically and in the current moment, to disrupt. Protestors often seek to disrupt our comfort zones in order to bring light to injustices. Silence is not disruptive. Disruption requires volume, and they were loud. Yes, a window was broken. But there seems to be more concern over this small piece of damaged property than over the overreaction of police in spraying and threatening bodily harm to the students.

Threats of criminal and Honor Court charges against the students who exercised their free speech rights is indicative of how effectively they embodied their power to express themselves and protect their community from the silencing effect of hate speech. We often lament the lack of involvement of young people in politics and issues of importance. But how quick we have been to encourage their silence, demonize their expressions, chill their participation, and discipline and punish them when they have any real effect.

Some have argued that it is not entirely clear that YWC or Mr. Tancredo are/were engaging in hate speech. Your own comments refer to his talk as being about “immigration.” However, a review of Mr. Tancredo’s past speeches and YWC literature makes it quite clear that a rhetoric of “anti-immigration” is being used to thinly disguise intolerance, racism, fear, and attacks on the cultural identities of people of color who should “assimilate” into Western Culture. As purveyors of higher education, we have a responsibility to our students to be more critical and discerning and to teach them to be more critical and discerning about the rhetoric to which they are exposed. You don’t need to be a rhetorical scholar to see the insidiousness of this rhetoric. Hate speech (or if you prefer to err on the side of simple racist rhetoric) does not promote social justice or any other democratic values. Hate speech silences free speech by humiliating, denigrating, instilling fear, and inciting violence

It has been argued in the past couple of days that supporters of free speech should be tolerant of all speech. While I am of the view that as a democratic society we must be tolerant of dissenting views, in no way does this mean that all speech promotes democratic ends or should be tolerated. Put simply, some stories are better than others. The litmus test for these “better stories” include those that promote tolerance, acceptance, social justice, equality, and yes, free speech. The rhetoric espoused by YWC and Mr. Tancredo does not promote tolerance of difference and silences those who are “different.” Why then should we be tolerant of a rhetoric that in no way promotes the goals of a democracy and that creates a culture of fear and hate? Hate speech silences free speech.

Mr. Tancredo is a former Congressperson and Presidential candidate. Therefore, he is someone with a great deal of political power, who has had many and will continue to have many opportunities to have his voice heard. I do not lament his speech being disrupted in this particular instance. What I do lament is that the students who attended Mr. Tancredo’s speech with the goal of engaging in dialogue or debate with him, did not get the opportunity to have their voices heard. Their voices are too often silenced it seems. However, it is my understanding that the groups who organized the protest have since been in conversation with these students to apologize and find productive ways to work in solidarity so as to avoid a similar clash of communication strategies in the future. But as a teacher of communication, I would say to those students desiring dialogue, I admire your resolve. However, to have a truly productive dialogue with someone holding contrary views, all must come to the table willing to respect the diversity of others, trust in their goodwill, and prepared to be honest and open-minded. I do not believe that given the opportunity to dialogue with Mr. Tancredo or members of the YWC, you would have found these conditions to be present.

In closing, I would like to ask you, Chancellor Thorp, to use this moment as an opportunity to truly hear your students’ diverse voices when they say to you that they will not be silent when racism threatens their community. Use this opportunity to forge a dialogue among students, faculty, staff, and university police so as to have more productive, peaceful interactions in the future that protect our students and their rights.

Respectfully,

Billie Murray

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