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Moeser supports free expression


The United States is now at war, dropping bombs and firing off cruise missiles into Afghanistan to root out terrorists and topple the Taliban regime that has harbored and supported them.

Two days before the bombs began falling, at an Oct. 5 Faculty Council meeting, Chancellor James Moeser talked of another important battle that the University must fight -- not against terrorists, but against those who would seek to silence dissenting voices within academia.

After a forum titled "Understanding the Attack on America: an Alternative View" was held on campus Sept. 17, Moeser received some 50 phone calls and 300 e-mails. Many of the messages not only decried the non-violent views expressed at the teach-in, but ridiculed Moeser for allowing them to be expressed.

Afterward, sponsors of the teach-in, including members of the Progressive Faculty Network, said they received threats. Among them was elin O'hara slavick, associate professor of art and teach-in moderator, who was also contacted by Time magazine to discuss comments she has made about U.S. foreign policy that drew criticism from conservative activist David Horowitz.

The events of these past four weeks have changed the world, Moeser said. They have changed the campus. But what was not going to change at Carolina was the right of its faculty and students and staff to speak their minds -- even if people off campus don't like what they are saying.

Moeser said Carolina had been maligned on some web sites as having staged anti-American demonstrations, and readers of those sites were urged to send him e-mails or call his office with demands that the organizers of these activities be censured, fired, or as one suggested, "shot as traitors."

It is as important for him to stand up for the right of free expression on campus, Moeser said, as it is for the country, in his view, to stand up to terrorists.

To censor voices within the University because of complaints from outside of it, Moeser argued, would be tantamount to handing over one of the fundamental rights that terrorists most despise about America -- the freedom to disagree with popular opinion and with the government itself without fear or threat.

And in no place is that freedom more precious than a university as great as Carolina.

"It is one thing to stand before you and describe a university with the courage of its convictions, but it is another to have to defend those convictions in the face of a malicious attack on this University from persons, mostly from outside North Carolina, demanding that we curtail the constitutional guaranteed freedoms of speech and assembly and abrogate our most cherished principles of academic freedom," Moeser told the Faculty Council.

Well-received stand

"Let me be clear to those outside the academic community who do not understand what is taking place here," Moeser said. "First, I do not by any means subscribe to all of the views that have been expressed in some of these forums. How could I, when the views run the gamut of public opinion in this country?

"Second, the University is not the sponsor of any particular point of view. Carolina does not have a foreign policy."

Moeser said he is not afraid to state his own convictions.

"I believe our nation should respond to eliminate the evil in our world that would attack not just the structures of our society, but the very foundations of freedom itself, in order to impose on the world their vision of a theocracy that denies all of our basic freedoms," Moeser said.

Moeser said he understands that not all faculty members and staff would share his view.

"Regardless, I shall continue to defend the right of those who have a contrary view, who challenge authority and orthodoxy. That is the role of the academy and the right of all of us as individual citizens."

On the topic of war and peace, the Faculty Council voted unanimously on a series of resolutions. The one that drew the most attention originally read: "condemns all acts of terrorism and military aggression." The resolution, after several other revisions were offered and rejected, ended up reading "condemns all acts of terrorism."

Another resolution that passed without discussion read simply: "reaffirms the values of free speech and tolerance."

Members of the council, led by Faculty Chair Sue Estroff, later broke into spontaneous applause for the way Moeser has handled the controversy.

"I want to take time to thank the chancellor for his unflinching defense of not just the right to dissent, but the responsibility of all of us to speak our minds and our hearts in these difficult days."

Estroff said a reporter asked her if the faculty was relieved by the chancellor's stance. She said, "`No, not really, it's what we expected of him.'"

Estroff said the events of Sept. 11 had left "our hearts bruised and our minds boggled."

For many, she said, it served as a reminder of the day John F. Kennedy died. "And like that day, what I will remember most from that first huge University gathering, is the silence.

"The chancellor asked us to leave in silence and in peace and 10,000 of us did -- just as when I was in seventh grade all of us walked home from school when Kennedy was shot in silence. It was a silence of respect, of grief, of disbelief and of determination to somehow understand."

Since Sept. 11, Estroff said, many voices have been raised "to question, teach, challenge and ponder."

As usual, she said, there has been disagreement among us, but that disagreement is something to be prized.

"In our respectful disagreement, we make the most compelling case for the preciousness and worth of the academy," Estroff said. "In these heated debates, we teach our students lessons for a lifetime."

A voice from New York

During his remarks, Moeser quoted Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, who recently addressed the State University of New York presidents.

Boehlert talked of how it was "our sense of the world, not the world itself, that changed" because of the events on Sept. 11, Moeser said.

Academia, Boehlert went on to say, as the "generator, analyzer, repository and purveyor of human knowledge and insight, will necessarily have an impact on whether and how our world actually changes."

Boehlert said he hoped and expected universities would be up to the task.

Moeser said Boehlert was sage in his assessment. As concerned as each of us is about safety and security, Moeser said, "We don't want to close the campus, either to physical access or to the exploration of ideas."

Moeser said he wrote letters to both North Carolina senators asking them to oppose a proposal from Dianne Feinstein, a U.S. senator from California, to establish a six-month moratorium on foreign student visas in order to give the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service time to develop fully its foreign student tracking system.

This idea will accomplish little and make it impossible for foreign students to enroll at Carolina and other U.S. campuses, Moeser said.

Moeser also said the University must remain committed to pursuing an agreement with the Qatar Foundation to establish an undergraduate business degree program in the Persian Gulf. "If there was ever a time when American institutions need to establish relationships with moderate Islamic states, this is it," Moeser said.

"The greatest danger we could possibly face would be a radicalized Islamic world incubating terrorists. This opportunity to respond to an invitation to transplant the values of America's first public university to the Persian Gulf is not only to the mutual benefit to Qatar and UNC-Chapel Hill, but I would argue, in the best interests of our nation and the free and democratic world."


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