Invitation Launches Campus Debate

March 31, 2003

 

Controversy arose on campus in February as the result of a column in The Wall Street Journal's online "Opinion Journal" that criticized the university for inviting a speaker to campus and not mentioning the fact that she had been convicted of bombing the U.S. Capitol in 1983. Laura Whitehorn, an HIV activist who speaks around the country about HIV-AIDS in prisons, had been invited by a Duke visiting professor in the African and African-American Studies program (AAAS) to speak on campus in March.

Whitehorn, who spent fourteen years in prison, said the bomb, which went off in an unoccupied part of the Capitol, was placed as a protest against the U.S. invasion of Grenada and was not intended to injure anyone.

The response across the country was swift. Hundreds of e-mail messages, overwhelmingly negative, protested the invitation to Whitehorn. Stories in both the local and national media reflected the concerns about the invitation but also addressed the university's responsibility to preserve academic freedom.

David Jarmul, associate vice president for news and communications, released a statement saying, "Duke does not exert control over or pressure its faculty and departments in their selection of campus speakers. One of our nation's greatest values, and one we at Duke celebrate, is the freedom for people to express their thoughts openly. Students, faculty, and other members of the Duke community benefit from hearing and debating a wide variety of ideas."

As the week progressed, other voices were heard. The Duke Conservative Union ran a full-page ad in The Chronicle criticizing AAAS for the invitation and for initially including no mention on its department Web page of Whitehorn's involvement in the Capitol bombing. Calling Whitehorn a terrorist, the DCU ad urged readers to e-mail the program and express their displeasure at the invitation. "What's next?" the ad said. "Perhaps the AAAS will bring Osama bin Laden to speak on campus; he, like Ms. Whitehorn, hoped to destroy the U.S. Capitol Building."

Media attention died down, but the internal conversation continued. President Nannerl O. Keohane wrote a letter to the "Online Journal" saying that the column "sparked a useful conversation here, both on campus and with others, about why Duke should allow her to appear. One member of our alumni board [Roy Keifer M.B.A. '78], who served in Vietnam and elsewhere as a Naval officer for two decades, wrote, 'it is virtually certain I would vehemently disagree with [Whitehorn] on almost any public-policy issue. Nevertheless, I would also defend her right to free thought and to free expression with every fiber of my being.... That is what I served and fought for.' "

" We've encouraged a debate about this incident for the same reason we resist pressuring our faculty, students, or departments in their selection of speakers: We are committed to an open airing of ideas and opinions," Keohane wrote. "One of our nation's greatest values, from the earliest days of our republic, is the freedom for people to express their thoughts openly. Students, faculty members, and others in the Duke community benefit from hearing and debating a wide variety of ideas. We have confidence in their ability to analyze and critique the diverse arguments they hear. This activity is central to a healthy democracy and an essential hallmark of our universities."