A campus free speech bill passed the state House on Wednesday night, after a debate about whether free expression is at risk in the UNC system.
The bill passed 88-32 in the House, meeting a critical deadline in the legislature. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
Dubbed “Restore/preserve campus free speech,” House Bill 527 is a mandate for North Carolina’s public universities to ensure “the fullest degree” of intellectual freedom and free expression and to guarantee campuses be open to all speakers. The bill would require public universities to have a range of sanctions for protesters who disrupt events or interfere with others’ free speech rights. Universities would have to teach students about free speech policies during freshman orientation.
Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat, called it “a solution looking for a problem.” She acknowledged that free speech issues crop up from time to time on campuses, but said those are best handled by the courts.
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“I don’t like this kind of regulation of a constitutional right,” she said of the bill. “Young people come to college to learn about free speech, and they do it best through experience, not a set of rules.”
Others see barriers on campuses. They cited past lawsuits where universities settled complaints about limits to free expression.
More free speech is good. I don’t want to regulate the free speech. I want it to be available to all parties, left and right.
Rep. Jonathan Jordan, Republican representing Ashe and Watauga counties
Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican representing Ashe and Watauga counties, said that one campus had free speech zones, small areas carved out for free speech. He did not identify the campus.
“It sounds like we need this bill very much on our campuses to help provide some direction and some protection, not regulation of free speech,” he said. “More free speech is good. I don’t want to regulate the free speech. I want it to be available to all parties, left and right.”
The bill follows a series of recent national controversies in which loud and sometimes riotous protests shut down speaker events at schools such as Middlebury College, Brown University and University of California-Berkeley. This week, conservative commentator Ann Coulter dropped plans for a speech at Berkeley after the university initially canceled it. She cited safety concerns that had prompted a conservative sponsor to pull out of the event.
The bill has been championed by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Republican lawmakers, who cited past instances where conservatives had successfully sued universities over free expression issues.
Legislatures in several states have debated bills that force free speech rules on campuses. The North Carolina bill is based on model legislation from the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based conservative and libertarian public policy think tank.
Jordan listed a number of First Amendment controversies on UNC campuses, including a 2014 settlement in which UNC Wilmington paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and back pay to a sociology and criminology professor, Mike Adams, who sued, claiming he was denied a promotion because of his political and religious views.
I don’t think this body or any other body ought to be in the position of having to regulate speech.
Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat
Rep. John Blust, a Guilford Republican, said he had seen an N.C. State University Facebook page following last year’s election in which students were offered coloring books and candy bars at a safe zone, “so students that were upset by the election could go, and I guess, feel secure.”
Rep. Michael Speciale, a Republican who represents Beaufort, Craven and Pamlico counties, called Wednesday “a sad moment” in a state that proclaims “First in Freedom” on its license plates.
“That we are in a position where we have to debate a bill that allows free speech on campus, that requires free speech on campus, because our constitution isn’t enough any more apparently,” Speciale said.
But writing policies on free speech sets a dangerous precedent, said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat.
“I call this a bill that regulates free speech,” he said. “That’s exactly what it is, and I don’t think this body or any other body ought to be in the position of having to regulate speech.”