Faculty members dedicated to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech have secured the near future of a UNC conservative student group that attracted national attention when its guest speakers were met with protests on campus in April.
Three faculty members volunteered to advise Youth for Western Civilization after Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 requested the resignation of the former adviser, retired psychology professor Elliot Cramer, on Sept. 18.
Those who agreed to take on the job are Chris Clemens, former YWC adviser and an astronomy professor; Jon Curtis, associate director of activities and organizations for the Carolina Union; and Hugon Karwowski, a professor of nuclear physics.
Curtis and Karwowski said that freedom of expression and speech motivated them to save the group.
“While I was asked by Chancellor Thorp to be part of the adviser team, I had given thought to volunteering because I was frustrated that a group of [UNC] students, with the history of self-governance and free speech that has long been a deep tradition and history of this University, were being limited in their ability to pursue their right to assemble and exercise their speech,” Curtis wrote in an e-mail.
Karwowski said that students willing to organize for a cause should not be stopped by the lack of an adviser. Student groups lose their official status with the University if they go 30 days without an adviser. Both he and Cramer said they would advise almost any group, even if they did not agree with the group’s objectives.
“Universities are about discourse, about the competition of ideas – not about making speakers uncomfortable enough to where they have to leave before they finish their speech,” Karwowski said.
Youth for Western Civilization was responsible for bringing speakers Tom Tancredo and Virgil Goode to the campus last spring. Both speeches drew protests from students and others, and both resulted in arrests for disruption.
Early in this semester, anonymous brochures were circulated on the campus that targeted Youth for Western Civilization as being white supremacist and racist. They included the home address and phone number of Cramer. Readers were encouraged to contact Cramer and request that he withdraw support for YWC.
When YWC President Nikhil Patel e-mailed Cramer to warn him that the brochures seemed to be an indirect threat to his safety, Cramer replied, writing, “I have a Colt 45 and I know how to use it. I used to be able to hit a quarter at 50 feet 7 times out of 10.”
Cramer copied the response to Thorp and to senior Haley Koch, who was one of those arrested after the Tancredo appearance in April. He said the gun remark was a joke between himself and Patel.
Thorp said the e-mail was “highly inappropriate” and “not consistent with the civil discourse we are trying to promote.”
Cramer said he did not expect his remark to be taken seriously but that, in retrospect, he should have forwarded the original e-mail, not his response.
“Let’s suppose one takes this as a warning to these people,” said Cramer, referring to the writers of the anonymous brochure. “I was, after all, responding to what Nikhil perceived as a threat. If someone comes to harm me, I’m prepared for them. I think anybody has a right to defend himself in his home against violence.”
He added, “If the chancellor feels that I should not serve as adviser, then I should not serve as adviser.”
Cramer said he had agreed in August to advise the group because he was outraged by the protests that stopped Tancredo from speaking. Though Cramer said he does not agree with all of the group’s principles, he does advocate free speech.
“I think this group can serve to have provocative presentations of controversial ideas, and I think that’s what a university is all about,” he said.
Curtis said his personal views are not relevant to his position as adviser.
“I learned very early on in this position that I had to be, that I must be, content neutral,” he said. “Whatever I believe in or support is of zero consequence to the performance of my job.”
Karwowski said that he never aspired to be a “poster boy” for a conservative organization but that the issue at hand – freedom of speech – is fundamental, not partisan. He said he was surprised more faculty members did not volunteer to advise the group.
“How come the physicists are the ones stepping up?” he asked. “We must have more than 300 distinguished scholars in social sciences with great credentials. I’m really surprised none of them stepped up.”
The lack of more volunteers did not surprise Curtis.
“There seems to be a reticence on the campus to support either controversial positions or those that engender hostility – and that’s understandable,” Curtis said. “No one serves as the adviser to an organization to add on to his or her plate of responsibilities or to deal with negativity.”
Both said they will involve themselves in the group’s activities as much as the members request.
Patel said he is looking forward to working with the advisory board.
“With three advisers and myself – and Dr. Cramer wants to offer his help when he can – it will bring four different perspectives to the group and various different ideas for each thing the club wants to do,” Patel said.
Patel said he became president to ensure a more balanced political atmosphere on campus, not to promote a single cause. He expects the chapter to provoke debates grounded in fairly conservative ideas.
Karwowski said the three advisers have not met but plan to do so before Oct. 8, when YWC is sponsoring a speech by conservative political commentator Bay Buchanan.
– Meagan Racey