A student in Prof. Elyse Crystall’s “Literature and Cultural Diversity” class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was accused of making “violent, heterosexist comments,” uttering “hate speech” and creating a “hostile environment” in class, according to an e-mail sent to all members of the class by the professor. What the student, identified as Tim, had done was answer the question posed by the day’s lecture, from his perspective as, in the professor’s description, a “white, heterosexual, christian male” (sic).
According to Tim, whose last name is being withheld out of concern for his privacy, the discussion topic for class that day was “Why do heterosexual men feel threatened by homosexuals?” Tim said that after many other students had answered, he raised his hands and said that disagreed that men felt threatened by homosexuals. Tim said that he told the class, “I have a heterosexual friend, Joe, in California, who was hit on by a homosexual man and he got a love letter from him. He did not feel threatened, he just felt disgusted and dirty because this was the first time this happened to him.”
Tim added that “Being a Christian, I would feel uncomfortable having to explain to my son at a baseball game why two homosexual men are kissing” and said he could only imagine the word “threatened” being used “in the context of life in gay marriage because homosexual marriages don’t produce life like heterosexual marriages do.”
Tim said Crystall argued “that some homosexual couples can use medical technology to still have children and that is where class ended.” Afterwards, she sent an email out to her entire class about “the comments that tim made.” Crystall apologized “for not having made clear the first day of classes what i will make clear here and now: that i will not tolerate any racist, sexist, and/or heterosexist comments in my class” (sic — for this and all subsequent quotations). She further apologized to “those of us who feel vulnerable or threatened” and pledged to “do my best to counter those feelings and protect that space from further violence.”
Crystall decided to use Tim’s comments as a teachable moment, writing the class:
“what we experienced, as unforuntate as it is, is, however, a perfect example of privilege. that a white, heterosexual, christian male, one who vehemently denied his privilege last week insisting that he earned all he has, can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable is what privilege makes possible.”
Tim said his “vehemently den[ying] his privilege last week” referred to his statement in class that he had indeed earned nearly everything he had. Unbeknownst to Crystall, who was acting upon her assumptions according to Tim’s youth, skin color, and sexual preference, Tim was an entrepreneur. As Tim explained to the class web site following Crystall’s e-mail:
“I did not lie to the class either. Yes, almost everything I call my own I have honestly earned. I drive a $3000 20-year old car that I bought, and I pay for my own food. I have taken out loans and paid them back. I work 16 hour days on the weekends and 8 hours days on top of school during the school week.”
Tim also posted a newspaper article, written about his selling cars on the Internet when he was 16 years old, to prove his point. Then he addressed the question of his denial of privilege:
“I do not deny my privilege either. I am extremely privileged that I am a Christian, and that I can attend such an excellent school. I am privileged that I was accepted into accelerated math and English programs in high school, and I spoke aloud saying that I agree with those programs. I have a brother with diabetes who gets picked on from time to time, and I am Alsatian Lorraine (a race of people) who is labeled as white, which probably makes me the biggest minority in this school.”
Controversy over Crystall’s e-mail began to build. Tim accepted an invitation to speak about the incident on The Jerry Agar Show on Raleigh’s WPTF AM, and UNC-Wilmington professor Mike Adams wrote about it in his column on TownHall.com.
Shortly thereafter, Crystall sent another e-mail to the entire class.
“The purpose of this class,” she wrote, “is for all of us to be able to discuss difficult and sensitive issues. We all want each person to be able to express his or her opinions freely and openly, but responsibly and respectfully as well. I regret that my email to you last week crossed a line and inhibited free discussion.”
Furthermore, Crystall wrote, “And I am sorry if anyone was offended by my email; my intention was to promote respectful conversation among us, not to censor anyone. We should not make specific examples of anyone, and I should not have named anyone. I hope that we can all work together to clarify these issues.”
“The instructor has apologized to the individual student with concerns as well as to all class members,” said UNC-CH Director of University Communications Mike McFarland. “The instructor and the student also have met with the department chair to discuss what happened and the concerns of the individuals.”
McFarland said the department chair will continue to monitor the situation. He referred to UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser’s past comments respecting the free exchange of ideas on campus. “As a public university,” McFarland said, “Carolina has a special responsibility to vigorously protect the right of everyone to be heard.”
“The terms ‘Hate Speech’ and ‘hostile environment’ have been abused for years now as excuses to silence student opinions that college faculty and administrators don’t like,” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Lukianoff said that Crystall had every right to disagree with Tim, “but she should not have claimed that the speech was somehow a crime or a form of actual ‘violence.'”
“Instead of having a debate on the merits of what the student had said she transformed this case into one that is about the abuse of legal terms in the name of censorship,” Lukianoff said. “She may passionately disagree with the student’s point of view, but even ‘offensive’ speech is protected speech.”
George Leef, director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, wondered why Crystall applied “privileged” as a pejorative to Tim, “evidently just because he is white, male, and heterosexual.”
“But these characteristics don’t give him any privileges in the U.S,” Leef said. “Saddam Hussein was privileged. The British royal family is privileged. But an ordinary American? No, Tim is not privileged. It’s too bad that Crystall’s antipathy toward him causes her to butcher English in front of the students.”
Jon Sanders is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.