Commentary

Jenkins: UNC should protect, not muzzle Gene Nichol

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comApril 17, 2014 

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&O’s 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, it’s clear they want Nichol gone.

The professor is a blunt, righteous liberal and proud of it. A former college quarterback, he’s 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. He’s 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 he’s criticized Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators, who’ve 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, Nichol’s bosses in Chapel Hill have asked him to give them a “heads up” when he’s going to have a tough piece in the paper, and they’ve also asked him to qualify what he writes with the disclaimer that he doesn’t speak for the university.

For smart people, this isn’t very smart. It’s also bad strategy, if that’s what it’s supposed to be, on the university’s 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 don’t understand it, but bowing to bullies won’t work and it never has. Republicans won’t respect the university for bending to their pressure. Instead, they’ll 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 isn’t just supposed to be a welcoming place for free speech, it’s supposed to champion it. Gene Nichol’s freedom of speech is the university’s freedom of speech.

Liberal or conservative, who cares? Conservative think tanks don’t like Gene Nichol’s musings? Too bad. The conservatives have, after all, offered a few of their own thoughts on the opposite page. Liberals didn’t like it? Too bad.

University officials talk about how they believe in free speech and Nichol’s 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 haven’t gone that far, they’ve gone too far. Gene Nichol shouldn’t have to put a caveat on his articles about not speaking for the university. That’s 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 he’s 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 university’s strength, not its vulnerability.

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators have nothing to fear from Gene Nichol’s controversial but eloquent comments. It’s when people like Nichol quit speaking out that it’s time to worry.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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