Even as they wrestle with a not-very-effective attempt at damage control over an ongoing scandal involving athletics and academics, UNC-Chapel Hill officials now seem to be looking for more trouble. Are they inclined to create their very own, 2014 version of the Speaker Ban law of the early 1960s by silencing a much-respected law professor? Surely not, but it sure looks like it.
Last Sunday, The N&Os Jane Stancill profiled a campus roiling, at least in the administrative offices, over the outspoken law professor Gene Nichol. And the way Republicans react to him, its clear they want Nichol gone.
The professor is a blunt, righteous liberal and proud of it. A former college quarterback, hes got presence, you might say tall and burly with a quick smile, an ability to talk about all kinds of subjects, and a passion for social justice. His students at the UNC law school know him also to be a willing mentor and a stupendous intellect. Hes also something of a preacher, speaking on a recent Sunday under the heading, Poverty, Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount.
Nichol has done regular pieces for the opposite page, and in those hes criticized Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators, whove done their best to dismantle progressive policies, lower the boom on public education and for good measure, pass Voter ID laws and others designed to suppress those likely to go Democratic.
But now, in a what seems to be a chilling development, Nichols bosses in Chapel Hill have asked him to give them a heads up when hes going to have a tough piece in the paper, and theyve also asked him to qualify what he writes with the disclaimer that he doesnt speak for the university.
For smart people, this isnt very smart. Its also bad strategy, if thats what its supposed to be, on the universitys part. The implication is that Gene Nichol is making the GOP leaders in the General Assembly mad, and they might take it out on the university when it comes time to draw the budget. Let them try. The UNC system has tens of thousands of alums and allies in this state, and to gut its budget would be foolhardy.
Perhaps the campus pooh-bahs in Chapel Hill dont understand it, but bowing to bullies wont work and it never has. Republicans wont respect the university for bending to their pressure. Instead, theyll see weakness and next up will start dictating what courses can be taught with an eye toward eliminating anything that might be liberal.
A great university isnt just supposed to be a welcoming place for free speech, its supposed to champion it. Gene Nichols freedom of speech is the universitys freedom of speech.
Liberal or conservative, who cares? Conservative think tanks dont like Gene Nichols musings? Too bad. The conservatives have, after all, offered a few of their own thoughts on the opposite page. Liberals didnt like it? Too bad.
University officials talk about how they believe in free speech and Nichols right to speak his mind, which Provost Jim Dean said in an email to Nichol. But Dean added, But some of our constituencies inevitably take your comments as coming from the university.
No, but there are some who will use their hatred of Nichol to try to intimidate the university into shutting him down.
And though officials havent gone that far, theyve gone too far. Gene Nichol shouldnt have to put a caveat on his articles about not speaking for the university. Thats nothing but a weak-willed bow to political pressure.
If Nichol has stirred things up among the Republicans on Jones Street, it should be noted hes not alone. Moral Monday ring a bell?
Finally, of all the campuses in North Carolina, one would think UNC-Chapel Hill would be the last place any administrator would bow to the heat of the moment and go anywhere close to a view that might be interpreted as trying to pull the reins on a professor.
In June of 1963, the North Carolina General Assembly passed one of the dumbest laws of all time, the Speaker Ban. It banned communists or sympathizers from speaking on a UNC campus. So of course communists were invited to speak, which they did from outside a rock wall on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
In time, UNC President Bill Friday and others, who worked against the law before and after its passage, came to see it invalidated by a federal lawsuit.
Friday was proud of people like Gene Nichol, and in my conversations with him, proud of Gene Nichol in particular. He knew such people are an example of a universitys strength, not its vulnerability.
UNC-Chapel Hill administrators have nothing to fear from Gene Nichols controversial but eloquent comments. Its when people like Nichol quit speaking out that its time to worry.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org