Since its inception in 2001 under the inspiration and leadership of legendary North Carolinian Julius L. Chambers, the UNC Center for Civil Rights has pursued racial and economic justice through its work in education, fair housing, environmental justice, community inclusion and political participation. The center works to dismantle structural and racialized barriers to equality – the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and racial discrimination that have impacted our state.
For several years, a few vocal members of the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the public university system, have led an attack on the center, purportedly aimed at prohibiting the center from representing clients, mostly from poor black and brown communities, in cases involving civil rights claims.
The board will soon vote on a proposal, which, if adopted, will effectively gut the core of the center’s mission. Before it votes, a board committee will hold a public forum May 11 in Chapel Hill. Information about the forum is available at here.
Many from North Carolina and across the U.S. already have shared how strongly opposed they are to the board proposal and are concerned that it will push the state backward in the struggle for racial equality and justice.
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The primary proponents of banning legal advocacy by the center on behalf of poor black and brown people claim to do so on grounds of academic principle, arguing that there is no place in a university for such legal representation. Alternatively, they argue that the center, since it is located at a state university, should not be able to sue other public entities.
These arguments are plainly without merit because clinical programs, institutes and centers that provide direct hands-on advocacy training currently exist at law schools across the country. It is tantamount to saying that law schools cannot teach one of the core functions of lawyering, especially for civil rights and public interest lawyers, by experiential learning.
As for suing public entities, the proposal before the board would prohibit center lawyers from suing anyone, public or private, as well as consulting with others who bring litigation or even referring cases to other lawyers. Moreover, state entities regularly engage in internecine litigation; across the country, clinical programs are regularly adverse to states.
The thinness of these arguments is evident in the disparate treatment accorded to virtually every other substantive area of legal practice. To paraphrase the late Thurgood Marshall: Why, out of all the multitudinous areas of legal practice taught in American law schools, do some on the board propose to single out civil rights litigation training for this special treatment? We respectfully submit that the attack on the UNC Center for Civil Rights is ideological hostility to the substantive work of the center masquerading as academic principle.
In opposing the board proposal, we do not assume that the majority of the board will vote to support it. We hope it will not. We believe that the current ugly politics and racial divisiveness are counterproductive and un-American. Still, we will not be intimidated. Regardless of who holds the levers of governmental power at any given moment, the state and country belong to everyone. We want to believe that a majority of the board will not vote against the legacy of Julius Chambers, who worked so hard to change North Carolina and UNC for the better, and was committed to train law students to fulfill the promise of the Constitution.
Theodore M. Shaw is a Julius L. Chambers distinguished professor of law and director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.