State lawmakers have waded into the charged campus free speech debate, 54 years after the legislature famously banned Communist speakers at the University of North Carolina.
This time around, there’s no speaker ban, but rather an insistence that campuses be open to all invited speakers.
House Bill 527, dubbed “Restore/preserve campus free speech,” is a mandate for public universities to “ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.” 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.
The bill passed the House, 88-32, after 20 minutes of debate Wednesday night.
The bill follows a series of recent national controversies in which loud and unruly protests shut down speaker events at schools such as Middlebury College, Brown University and University of California-Berkeley. This week, two student groups sued UC-Berkeley after the university canceled a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. Coulter vowed to show up for Thursday’s speech anyway, but canceled on Wednesday after a conservative sponsor pulled out of the event, citing security concerns.
Amid the speaker skirmishes, 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.
The bill has been championed by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Republican lawmakers.
It would require the UNC Board of Governors to establish a Committee on Free Expression to report annually on university barriers to free speech and how it maintains “a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues.”
Speakers, whether they be Ann Coulter or pro-Palestinian groups, are having their events permanently disrupted or canceled because certain student groups or individuals disagree with their beliefs.
Jonathan Jordan, Republican representative from Ashe and Watauga counties
Skeptical legislators expressed concern about implications of the neutrality clause, wondering if, for example, it would bar scientists from talking about climate change.
Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat from Orange County, voted against the bill in committee. “My main objection is it’s regulating free speech,” she said. “We don’t really have any ongoing problems at the university. Problems come up and they get solved.”
The idea that a university committee would monitor and manage guidelines on free speech is worrisome, Insko said, especially given the bill’s connection to a conservative think tank. “It does not come from a neutral research institution,” she said. “It comes from a group that has an extreme agenda.”
Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Ashe and Watauga counties, a sponsor of the bill, said “it’s not ideological, it’s about doing the right thing.”
“Speakers, whether they be Ann Coulter or pro-Palestinian groups, are having their events permanently disrupted or canceled because certain student groups or individuals disagree with their beliefs,” he said.
Jordan quoted an Appalachian State University faculty statement on free speech that said, in part, “(I)t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome.”
He also pointed to a statement last year by ASU’s chancellor Sheri Everts, after student confrontations over pro-Donald Trump chalk drawings on campus that some said were racially charged. Everts said: “It is important to note that free speech is encouraged on our campus, but not all speech that may be considered protected under state or federal laws is consistent with the university’s values and mission.”
“That,” Jordan said, “is the reason for the requirement for this bill.”
Others say a state law commanding free speech protection is not really necessary.
“We ought to be abiding by the First Amendment already,” said Michael Gerhardt, a UNC constitutional law professor who earned his law degree from the University of Chicago, which crafted a statement on free speech that is cited and followed by other universities.
Broad statements on free speech values are good, Gerhardt said, but specific guidelines could be problematic, he said. The terms “disruption” and “punishment” are vague and crafting regulations around them “would raise some real serious First Amendment concerns.”
Gerhardt said a new law isn’t needed to stop protesters from shouting down speakers. Campuses like Berkeley and Auburn University have overreacted to politically sensitive speech, he said. “We just need to remember what the ideals and guarantees of the First Amendment are, and how a public campus really respects them and arranges for them and provides for them,” he said.
Some universities handle the task better than others, according to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia nonprofit that aims to protect students’ campus freedom of speech, legal equality, due process and religious liberty. The FIRE organization studied campus policies and rated them, giving only two universities in North Carolina the highest designation, a green light – UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. N.C. State University and East Carolina University rated a yellow light, and UNC Greensboro was labeled with a red light.
We’re seeing a real lack of civics knowledge and knowledge about the First Amendment in primary and secondary schools.
Jeffrey Herbst, CEO of the Newseum
“Speech restrictions are a real problem on the UNC campuses – NC State just settled a free speech lawsuit last year – and we are glad to see the Legislature address them,” Robert Shibley, FIRE’s executive director, said in an email. “That said, the new version of the bill may be a bit modest to accomplish its aims, as students who are censored can no longer sue under the proposed legislation.”
A white paper published Tuesday by the Newseum in Washington suggested a problem that goes beyond college policies or incidents of censorship.
Young people today have developed an alternate understanding of free speech, said the paper’s author and Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst. He calls it “the right to non-offensive speech.”
The popular narrative, that liberal professors and university coddle students with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” about unpleasant ideas, misses the point that students’ views are usually formed before they get to college, Herbst said. He thinks there is more self-censoring by students than stifling of debate by universities.
He cited a 2016 Knight Foundation survey that found that 91 percent of high school students thought people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, but 45 percent agreed that it was OK to limit speech if it was offensive to others. A Pew Foundation poll found that 40 percent of millennials would accept limitations if speech offended minorities, compared with 24 percent of baby boomers.
“We’re seeing a real lack of civics knowledge and knowledge about the First Amendment in primary and secondary schools,” Herbst said.
A free speech law may not have much impact, Herbst said, because college students don’t necessarily pay attention to legislatures or university administrators. He suggests more education on the First Amendment, deliberate statements by universities and ways for students to become free speech advocates.
“The case has to be made to students that maximum free expression is good for them, and in particular students who are from minority communities or who are alienated,” he said. “At the end of the day, the First Amendment is the most powerful avenue for protest and trying to achieve equality.”