Students 'Duke It Out' With Controversial Speaker

A student group is accusing Duke University of rolling out the red carpet to a "terrorist."

The controversy surrounds a speaking invitation to Laura Whitehorn, who spent 14 years in federal prison for helping to plot a 1983 bomb attack on the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

A professor with Duke’s African and African-American Studies program scheduled Whitehorn to speak on campus March 3.

Originally, the AAAS Web site promoted Whitehorn as "a revolutionary anti-imperialist who spent over 14 years in federal prison as a political prisoner." After student complaints surfaced, the "political prisoner" reference was dropped and the biography was amended to explain Whitehorn’s prison term was for her role in the Capitol bombing.

The Duke Conservative Union took out a full-page ad in The Chronicle, the student newspaper, to criticize the use of university money for Whitehorn’s visit. The ad accuses the AAAS program of "funding a terrorist."

"A terrorist is someone who tries to invoke terror or fear in a population to achieve political ends," said Duke senior Bill English, the Conservative Union’s president. "This is exactly what Laura Whitehorn did in 1983."

Despite the controversy, Duke University officials say they do not interfere with their faculty’s choice of speakers and will not stand in the way of Whitehorn’s visit.

"What we’re doing is advocating our commitment to freedom of speech, academic freedom," said William Chafe, dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke. "We don’t have a standard by which everyone has to be measured in order to come speak to our classrooms."

Duke is not alone. Whitehorn has spoken at Brown, Cornell, Vassar and other prestigious institutions with little controversy. Her talks focus on the spread of sexually-transmitted disease among prison inmates — a topic she studied extensively during her own incarceration.

"She was invited here because of her expertise on HIV/AIDS," Chafe said. "She was not invited here to advocate terrorism or to speak about terrorism."

Nevertheless, some students find Whitehorn’s radical past troubling.

"Would Timothy McVeigh be welcome on campus? Would someone who’s bombed abortion clinics be welcome on campus?" English asked rhetorically. "We think it’s ridiculous that the university is trying to play the free speech card."

The Capitol Hill bomb, planted in protest of U.S. military intervention on the Caribbean island of Grenada, exploded around 11 p.m. on Nov. 7, 1983. The blast damaged a conference room near the Senate chamber.

But Whitehorn insists she is not a terrorist because no people were injured. The Chronicle quotes Whitehorn as saying, "I’ve never been involved in targeting civilians. [The U.S. Capitol] bombing was a symbolic action. Great care that no one would be hurt was taken, even the janitorial staff."

Whitehorn’s critics insist, lethal or not, bombs are never acceptable forms of public dissent — something Whitehorn may come to appreciate now that protest is directed against her.