Gov. Roy Cooper has until Sunday to take action on a controversial bill addressing free speech on college campuses.
Some say the bill, which passed the N.C. General Assembly with universal Republican support and just a handful of Democratic votes, will protect students’ First Amendment rights. Others say it will do the opposite.
The bill, passed in late June, would:
- Require the 17 member colleges and universities to be open to any speakers that students, student groups or members of the faculty invite to speak.
- Ban the practice of creating “free speech zones” on UNC-system campuses. First developed during the Vietnam War, free speech zones are specific areas of campus designated for protest, which have been criticized for limiting protester’s rights.
- Call for the UNC-system Board of Governors to develop a policy preventing schools from “shield[ing] individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” The Board of Governors will develop a committee to guard free speech on college campuses.
- Call for member schools to develop sanctions for anyone who disrupts or interferes with the free speech rights of others.
- Require incoming first-year students to receive training on campus First Amendment policies during orientation.
Cooper press secretary Ford Porter gave no indication whether the governor would sign the bill, but it is likely to become law even without the governor’s signature – it was ratified with veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Supporters of the bill say it will encourage schools to promote greater diversity of viewpoints. In a recent op-ed in the Charlotte Observer, Anna Beavon Gravely, a spokeswoman for the center-right Generation Opportunity, said the bill would make North Carolina a leader in academic freedom.
“It’s unfortunate that it has come to this, but it’s clear that our academic institutions have not properly safeguarded students’ constitutionally protected rights,” she wrote.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rates colleges in all 50 states based on their free speech rules.
Among the schools rated in North Carolina, five schools – including UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and N.C. Central University – received the highest rating, a green light. Six received a yellow light, including N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University. Only Davidson College received a red light.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at FIRE, said the bill will protect students’ free speech rights and has already had a positive impact – causing schools to preemptively address their free speech policies.
The bill is based upon model legislation from the Goldwater Institute, a right-leaning think tank. But the final version didn’t include controversial provisions on institutional neutrality, nor did it declare all public areas of campuses open to speakers.
Critics of the bill include the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union. Susanna Birdsong, an N.C. ACLU attorney, said the bill’s provision on disciplinary sanctions could be used to crack down on protesters.
“In a country that protects and values the right to free speech, the answer to speech we don’t like is more speech – not censorship,” she said in an email.
Birdsong called the bill “a solution in search of a problem,” and said universities already have appropriate remedies for “rare” free speech disputes.
State Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, voted against the bill, saying there was no compelling reason to adopt it. He also expressed concern that university faculty members have not been consulted.
“When I don’t hear that the faculty or professors have been engaged in part of the process, I’m going to have reservations about it,” he said.
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