Past Times

Students protested North Carolina’s Speaker Ban in 1966

Frank Wilkinson, barred from the UNC campus, addressed students across the stone wall along Franklin Street in 1966.
Frank Wilkinson, barred from the UNC campus, addressed students across the stone wall along Franklin Street in 1966. N&O Photo

Campus demonstrations have long been a way for students to make their voices heard. In 1997, writer Scott Jacobson looked back at a 1966 rally in support of activist Frank Wilkinson, who was barred from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus under the state’s Speaker Ban law. The law had been passed by the General Assembly in 1963 to prohibit communists from speaking on public university campuses in North Carolina.

In 1966, Wilkinson, who had formed a committee to abolish the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, was invited by the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society to speak at UNC.…

“The day before I was to arrive in Chapel Hill, I was speaking at a private home in Manchester, Conn.,” Wilkinson said in an interview… . “In the middle of my talk, a call came in from Duke University in Durham. The caller was a student who wanted to know if I’d be the guest of honor at Duke Law School. I said, ‘I’d love to, but I’m speaking at Chapel Hill.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not. You’ve been banned by Gov. Dan Moore.…’”

“The FBI had gone to the governor and told him, allegedly, what a dangerous person I was,” Wilkinson said, “and that I shouldn’t be allowed to speak.”

Instead, on the morning of March 2, 1966, Wilkinson addressed hundreds of students for 10 minutes from the sidewalk on East Franklin Street. The students were standing on the other side of the stone wall marking the campus boundary.…

“The governor said that if I put one foot on campus, I’d be jailed,” Wilkinson said. … “So, if you can believe it, I spoke to about 1,500 people over the wall, just shouting as loud as I could. The end result was, if I hadn’t been banned, I would have spoken to probably 25 students. Being banned, I spoke to well over 1,000. That’s a lesson for people that want to ban speakers.” The N&O Feb. 26,1997

Here is the report, from the next day’s paper, of Wilkinson’s talk.

Wilkinson delivered a 10-minute speech on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill Wednesday morning.

He spoke from the sidewalk across a stone wall to some 1,200 UNC students who stood on the University campus.

A large sign stretched out along the wall bore this message: “Gov. Dan K. Moore’s (Chapel Hill) Wall.”

Wilkinson told the students, “I believe the situation in which we find ourselves here assembled is an indignity to this great university.”

The Chapel Hill campus, he said, was the “first place where I’ve been banned from stating what I would like to state.” He said UNC was the 132nd campus on which he had been invited to speak.

He expressed the hope that “out of this effort we will be able to restore academic freedom to this university and to this state.” The N&O March 3, 1966

The General Assembly finally repealed the Speaker Ban law in 1995. Leading up to that, Emery P. Dalesio of The Associated Press reported on the background of the law.

In June 1963, former state Reps. Phil Godwin and Ned Delamar found a model for action when they heard Ohio legislators had barred Communists from speaking on the Ohio State University campus.…

Godwin said he sponsored the restriction after seeing the returning coffin of a Gates County neighbor who had been inducted, sent to Vietnam and killed within six months.

“My concern was, why did that young man give his life? And if we were going to go all the way to Vietnam to fight communism, why not fight it here?” Godwin said.

The proposal popped up one afternoon days later and legislative leaders zipped it through before anyone noticed. Five years of dispute over the limits of free speech, academic freedom and the defense of American values followed.

The uproar prompted the legislature to appoint a committee to review the law in 1965. Godwin said the committee was created to provide political cover in a sticky situation.

The committee recommended softening the ban into a restriction, and the General Assembly went along.…

In 1968, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the revised speaker ban was vague and unconstitutional. Gov. Dan K. Moore said the state would not appeal. …

The ban law has remained, unenforceable, for 27 years.…

“It’s part of history. It served its purpose and it’s time it came off, “ Godwin said. The N&O Apr. 18, 1995

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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