SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Criticism of Noisy Chapel Hill Protest Misses the Central Point
Several years ago, some protesters gathered at the North Carolina General Assembly to let their elected representatives know just what they thought about a tax increase.
The protest was organized by some of the same people behind the recent tax tea parties.
After some grub, sign-waving and speeches out behind the Legislative Building, a few dozen protesters trooped inside to watch the House floor session. A handful then decided to let their displeasure really be known.
They tossed six or eight tea bags from the gallery onto the legislators below. Predictably, security whisked them away. One legislator yelled at them. Other legislators denounced the scoundrels.
Surely they've all gone on to become hardened criminals, terrorizing the country. Or perhaps they've just returned to their peaceful, productive lives, having made their point. If they crossed a line that day, it's a line that's been crossed many times in America and crossed in the best traditions of political dissent.
And this country does embrace political dissent, doesn't it?
You wouldn't know it from all the hubbub created when some protesting students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently shouted down, intimidated and ran off a Colorado congressman.
Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo is a fierce opponent of illegal immigration. He had been invited to speak at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus by a student group. Some other students and a few professors weren't too pleased that he was there, and so began chanting and yelling at the congressman. Police broke up the melee with pepper spray. Tancredo never got his chance to speak.
The hand-wringing began shortly thereafter.
Chancellor Holden Thorpe apologized to Tancredo. He told students to recommit themselves to the ideals of free speech and silent protest (huh?). He said criminal charges would be pursued if warranted.
Editorial writers called the episode a black eye for the university, comparing the students' actions to the speaker ban law of the 1960s. The American Civil Liberties Union called it "de facto censorship."
It seems to me that there's a lot of confusion here about who's who and what's what.
The students aren't the university and the university is not its students. The students certainly aren't the government, with its constitutional obligation not to abridge free speech.
Me? I abridge free speech all the time. I tell my kids to shut up at least three times a day. Please don't sue me, ACLU.
If the university has a black eye, it's because administrators failed to establish adequate security for the visit by Tancredo, a man once condemned by Jeb Bush after calling Miami "a Third World country."
Some words inflame. Rightly or wrongly, the student protesters see Tancredo's words as hate speech that shouldn't be given a platform on the campus.
So they were raucous, unruly and crossed a line that's been crossed many times before. At least they were passionate. They shouldn't let a bunch of comfortable stuffed shirts sitting behind desks try to take that away from them.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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