This strikes me as quite a bad reaction on UNC’s part, assuming the facts in the News & Observer story are correct:
UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp shut down a campus anti-immigration group Friday after an anonymous flier targeted its faculty adviser, who then joked about his skills with a Colt .45.
Activists put out the flier at UNC-Chapel Hill this week revealing the home address of Youth for Western Civilization faculty adviser Elliot Cramer. Protests at speeches sponsored by the group led to seven arrests and a broken classroom window last spring.
On Thursday night, chapter President Nikhil Patel warned Cramer by e-mail that the flier included his name, photograph, home address and telephone number with the caption, “Why is your professor supporting white supremacy?” It encouraged students, faculty and community members to urge Cramer to withdraw from organization.
“I thought I’d let you know so that you can plan for some sort of protection,” wrote Patel, an Indian-American who denies the group is white-supremacist. “It seems like an indirect threat to your safety.”
“Thanks for your concern,” Cramer replied just after midnight, copying Thorp. “I have a Colt .45, and I know how to use it. I used to be able to hit a quarter at 50 feet seven times out of ten.”
By Friday afternoon, Thorp asked Cramer to step down as the group’s adviser.
“This email is highly inappropriate,” Thorp wrote to Cramer. “It is certainly not consistent with the civil discourse we are trying to promote.”
Thorp said Youth for Western Civilization is out of business until it can replace Cramer.
“We’re trying to come up with a way to have civil discourse and for different points of view to be shared,” Thorp said in an interview Friday. “Somebody who’s the faculty adviser has to show some restraint.”
Cramer said that the flier didn’t feel like a real threat and that his response to Patel was “off-hand” and “light-hearted.” He complied with Thorp’s request to resign.
“I’m sorry that I placed [the chancellor] in an awkward position,” said Cramer, who retired from the psychology department 15 years ago….
In April, Students for a Democratic Society and other protesters had shut down a speech by the group’s founder, Tom Tancredo, a former Colorado congressman, calling his group racist and white-supremacist.
This week, Thorp, who apologized to Tancredo personally in April, offered up to $3,000 for the group to invite another speaker to campus. Youth for Western Civilization had been planning to sponsor a speech in October by former conservative commentator Bay Buchanan in a reprise of her appearance in March….
Now it may well be that publishing a person’s home address is protected speech; I have so argued, and some courts agree, though there’s controversy about that. But surely publishing a group advisor’s home address — against a backdrop of criminal thuggery (albeit short of deadly violence) aimed at that group — is indeed potentially threatening. It seems to me that a professor, no less than anyone else, is entitled to respond by expressing a willingness to defend himself. (Things might be different if there were a statement or implication that he’d defend himself illegally, e.g., “if anyone shows up outside my house, I’ll shoot them dead,” but I think such an e-mail by a responsible person would normally be seen as an implicit assertion that he’d defend himself legally if seriously threatened.)
Nor is there anything uncivil about responding to the publication of a home address — not a reasoned argument about why one is mistaken, but a statement that can reasonably be understood as a threat of personal attack — with such a statement. And even if there were, I would think that a faculty member shouldn’t be removed by an administration even from a post as advisor to a student group simply because of a perceived lack of “civility,” at least on this level.
On top of this, leaving the group unable to function because of the faculty member’s alleged incivility — an incivility prompted by thuggishness that apparently came from the group’s enemies — seems even more unsound. If the university were really committed to preserving debate, it would make sure that the group could continue to function, rather than giving the thugs a victory. And this is especially so since the anonymous flyer will likely further reduce faculty members’ willingness to act as advisers, even if they want to make sure that the group has an opportunity to exist as a recognized group on campus.
(Note: The story does say, “Patel, a senior biology major, thinks Youth for Western Civilization has 30 days to remain active while seeking another adviser, and he thinks the group will find one,” but the story reports that the group is suspended for now.)