We got a letter recently that said: “… [L]et’s see, you are pro-gay rights, defender of the African American, against guns, against capital punishment, for more aid to the disenfranchised, pro-abortion, tree hugger, anti-war and yawn, on and on.”

The writer accused us of being “the same type of bigot, prejudiced person, justifier for your causes. You don’t see the other side as having any right positions. But you claim to be liberal. You and your paper are not liberal. You are as close-minded and rigid as those you detest.”

He went on to say: “A liberal community is one in which rednecks and intellectuals, anti-war advocates and hawks, right to life and right to abortion, civil rights advocates, and those who think that welfare has emasculated the black race, and more, can all live together with equal respect and passion. The hallmark of a liberal community is ‘different is OK.’ Different just doesn’t mean that we accept gays and lesbians. It means that we also accept strongly conservative individuals who believe that such relationships are morally reprehensible.”

It was written by Don Merki of Chapel Hill, who now writes textbooks and used to teach at the University of New Mexico. And I couldn’t agree with him more. Not that I believe we’re bigots, but that as strongly as we hold our convictions, we also endorse and (hopefully) engage in the kind of debate that Mr. Merki says truly defines a liberal community.

But, as writers Barbara Solow and Cat Warren show this week, that kind of debate is part of what’s being threatened on college campuses by orchestrated right-wing attacks on instructors and professors for expressing their beliefs. And it’s hard to avoid thinking that their real goal is not to undo decades of work building a society based on tolerance and understanding instead of prejudice and hate.

Just think about it. Elyse Crystall was teaching a class called “Literature and Cultural Diversity.” It was all about addressing controversial topics in a respectful manner. And when a student related a story calling gay men impure, disgusting and dirty, other students were upset. Crystall sent out an e-mail relating the incident to the issues they’d addressed in class such as hate speech and privilege, and said that some in the class might have felt “vulnerable or threatened.” She wasn’t saying the point of view was wrong, she was pointing out that the discussion went beyond the limits of appropriate respect.

That’s a lot different than saying a teacher with a “liberal bias” was clamping down on someone because they were anti-gay. Yes, Crystall could have handled it better–by making it a class discussion and not an accusation. I’m sure she wishes she had. But to suggest that she harassed a student by advising the class about the way she viewed the discussion– in terms they’d been discussing in class–is enough to keep any professor from wanting to carry on a meaningful debate.

Attacking discussion that comes to the defense of people who’ve suffered discrimination is a way for the right to turn back many of the social advances this nation has made in the last 40 or more years–in race relations, in women’s rights and, yes, in gay rights. That’s what President Bush’s social agenda is really all about (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-faith-based social services, etc.), and what groups like the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy are trying to promote.

So, yes, we are “pro-gay rights, defender of the African American, against guns, against capital punishment, for more aid to the disenfranchised, pro-abortion, tree hugger, anti-war.” And we relish the opportunity to discuss it with anyone.