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UNC officials denounce raucous student protest

Posted April 15, 2009 5:35 a.m. EDT
Updated April 16, 2009 9:56 a.m. EDT

— University of North Carolina administrators reacted strongly Wednesday to a student protest that had to be broken up by campus police.

Hundreds of students disrupted a Tuesday night speech by former Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo as he tried to speak about his opposition to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

Tancredo left after a protester broke a window and police shut down the event. He had been invited by the campus chapter of Youth for Western Civilization, a student group that opposes mass immigration and multiculturalism.

"This is probably the worst I've experienced on a college campus," Tancredo told WRAL News on Wednesday.

His speeches on immigration routinely generate protests, he said, but they're usually silent protests by students holding banners.

The scene brought sharp rebukes of students from UNC President Erskine Bowles, Chancellor Holden Thorp and Roger Perry, chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

"As someone who believes in free speech to my very bones and who also strongly believes that students need to hear from knowledgeable people with very different opinions, I was deeply disappointed that congressman Tancredo was not allowed to deliver his remarks," Bowles said in a statement.

"There’s a way to protest that respects free speech and allows people with opposing views to be heard," Thorp said in a statement.  "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. That didn’t happen (Tuesday) night."

Bowles and Thorp called Tancredo Wednesday to apologize for the incident.

"Kids are kids. They get emotional. They get crazy. But that doesn't mean they can start throwing rocks and bricks and start breaking windows," Tancredo told WRAL News. "I don't remember a campus where we could never even get a speech going."

Officers ejected two women who delayed the speech in Bingham Hall by holding a 12-foot banner across the classroom where Tancredo was to speak. It read, "No dialogue with hate."

Tancredo tried to pull the banner away, saying, "You don't want to hear what I have to say because you don't agree with me."

Campus Police spokesman Randy Young said pepper spray was "broadcast" to clear the area as the women were escorted outside. An officer also fired a stun gun, but it wasn't aimed at anyone, he said.

Young said the use of force was being investigated by the department.

"I just thought that it was going to continue to get worse and worse, and my first thought was just to get out of there as quickly as possible," said Chapel Hill resident Gayle Kietur, who witnessed the incident.

Tancredo said after officers escorted him out of the room that he had never been silenced by protesters.

"This is the free speech crowd, right?" Tancredo joked at one point as protesters screamed at him.

Campus police are trying to determine whether any criminal charges should be filed in the case. The UNC Division of Student Affairs also is investigating if any students violated the campus honor code.

Students for a Democratic Society, the campus group that organized the protest, released a statement late Wednesday in which it blamed the police for escalating the incident.

"All organizations involved in the protest were non-violent. Rather, it was the violence employed by the campus police that created a climate of fear and chaos," the statement said. "The issue is not about a broken window; it is about broken families, deportation and xenophobia."

Still, Perry called the protesters' actions "shameful."

"While respecting the right for orderly protest, we also feel that all thoughts and views should have freedom of expression on our campus," he said in a statement.

Before the speech ended, some in the audience of 150 urged the students to let Tancredo speak.

"We are the children of immigrants, and this concerns us," said junior Lizette Lopez, 22, vice president of the Carolina Hispanic Association. "So we would at least like to hear what he has to say if you want to hear what we have to say."

Some UNC students echoed that sentiment Wednesday.

"Everyone has a right to their opinions and, even if you disagree with someone, they still have a right to say what they want to say," student Matthew Hoehn said.

Tancredo told WRAL News that he blamed UNC faculty members and other adults in the room for encouraging the protesters instead of trying to calm the situation.

"That was discouraging to see at a major college campus," he said. "You might see it at some podunk place, but you wouldn't have thought it would be at a place like the University of North Carolina."

He quickly turned the episode into a fundraising opportunity, with his Team America PAC issuing a mass e-mail discussing his experience at UNC and soliciting donations.

Riley Matheson, president of the group that invited Tancredo to campus, said they hope he comes back to finish his speech.

"I hope that the university will pay congressman Tancredo to come back," Matheson said, noting the Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based group, had paid $3,000 for Tancredo to visit UNC.