In 1963, a conservative General Assembly in Raleigh passed the infamous Speaker Ban law which prevented communists from speaking on University of North Carolina campuses.
This year, a conservative General Assembly is proposing legislation to guarantee everyone has the right to speak on University of North Carolina campuses.
My how times have changed.
Exclusion of viewpoints is all the rage in colleges across the country. Speech codes and “safe” zones abound. Recently, prominent conservative speakers were effectively denied the opportunity to address Middlebury and Berkeley after being subjected to mob violence or threats. While those reactionary extremes made headlines, shutting out or shouting down people espousing diverse views has become commonplace.
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Many universities, which once acted as sanctuaries for our precious First Amendment right, are now leading an assault on it.
Fortunately, some are still standing up for our rights. Conservative Robert George and self-described radical Cornel West, both Princeton professors, jointly penned an open letter imploring students and faculty to “engage with people who challenge our views” and “oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree.” Thousands of colleagues across the country have signed the letter, only 20 of whom teach at North Carolina public universities.
Also reacting to this disturbing trend, the University of Chicago now sends a letter to all incoming freshmen declaring it will not tolerate any intolerance of expression, giving the students fair warning that all speech is fair play.
We have been lucky to have had few significant incidents on University of North Carolina campuses. However, the system is not a model of openness. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization headed by a liberal Democrat that monitors free speech policies and issues, gives its highest rating to only one school – our own UNC-Chapel Hill. UNC Greensboro receives the lowest rating, and the remaining universities are criticized for having some restrictions on free expression. The bottom line: there is no consistency across institutions, and many can do better than they have.
This has prompted the North Carolina legislature to step into the debate. Companion House and Senate bills – entitled “Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech” – set out policies and procedures to do just that. The legislation would require:
▪ the Board of Governors to adopt a policy of free expression and report annually on its status.
▪ the policy to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression and prohibit any attempt to restrict speech or require anyone to express a particular view.
▪ all speakers be given reasonable access to campuses and all parks, sidewalks, and plazas be open as public forums.
▪ a disciplinary process be set up for those who disrupt speech.
▪ that these policies be taught as a part of freshman orientation.
Some more extreme measures were included in earlier drafts of the bills, but after objections from the universities, they were removed. That clears the way for the legislation’s final passage.
It’s a sad state of affairs that the state must mandate honoring one of our constitutional rights in a higher-education environment which requires unimpeded vigorous debate to achieve its goals. But such is the world in which we currently live.
Fortunately, our university system – which is in many ways the envy of the nation – will soon be a leading advocate for returning freedom of speech to its proper place at the center of intellectual discourse. Its academic output and research will be stronger for it. So will its graduates, who will learn the critical skills of thinking, challenging their and others’ assumptions and being open to new ideas. As the future leaders of our state, they will be better equipped for citizenship, well armed to meet the challenges facing us.
Mark Zimmerman can be reached at MarkRZim@gmail.com