Education

ECU faculty groups support free speech rights after band protest

East Carolina celebrates after scoring during the second half of East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014.
East Carolina celebrates after scoring during the second half of East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Faculty groups at East Carolina University have come out in support of students’ free speech rights following an Oct. 1 protest in which some band members took a knee during the national anthem at a football game.

On Tuesday, the ECU Faculty Senate voted unanimously on a resolution affirming students’ “constitutionally protected free speech in the broadest possible spectrum of time, place, and manner” and opposing “any attempt to prevent or inhibit constitutionally guaranteed free speech.” The resolution also condemned acts of violence or intimidation directed at ECU students or members of the community.

“We thought this was an important statement to make,” said John Stiller, chair of the faculty and biology professor.

He said kneeling protests against police shootings of African-Americans have occurred at other universities, but the reaction at ECU was more intense. When 19 members of the band knelt at the Oct. 1 game in Greenville, the crowd booed and the band had to be escorted out of the stadium by police after fans threw debris at them. One band member reported being assaulted in a stadium restroom.

Initially, ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton issued a statement saying the university would “safeguard the right to free speech, petition and peaceful assembly as assured by the U.S. Constitution.” Two days later, ECU officials said future protests of the Marching Pirates would not be tolerated.

A News & Observer review of more than 450 pages of email showed that Staton was on the receiving end of anger by many alumni, fans and others who thought his first response was weak and that band members should be punished. A few donors threatened to stop giving money, and parents suggested they might remove their students from ECU.

Stiller said the reaction had caught the university off guard, leading to mixed messages. “I would say that what was really missing for a while was clarity of the university’s position,” he said.

Weeks after the event, faculty still wanted to affirm key principles of protecting free speech rights on campus and protecting students from intimidation, Stiller said.

Earlier, a separate petition signed by dozens of professors said students should be able to express themselves “without fear of any real or imagined administrative machinations” and should “never be forced to feel that their methods of free inquiry, protest, and self-expression can be easily throttled or shut down.”

“Thus, we encourage the administrative leadership to take an unequivocal stand against any efforts designed to diminish the voice of students as they express their understanding of the world that they live in or their vision for social change,” the petition said.

Staton was attending an athletic conference meeting out of state Tuesday when the faculty resolution passed, Stiller said.

In an Oct. 6 statement, Staton asked the ECU community to resolve differences peacefully, respect others and work toward common ground.

He wrote that students have the right to express themselves but ECU has “a responsibility, if necessary, to place reasonable constraints on the time, the place and the manner of expression or conduct, but within those constraints, the university respects and will defend that right.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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