Supporters rallying behind UNC’s civil rights center

A proposed ban on litigation by the UNC Center for Civil Rights has drawn heavy opposition from students, faculty, alumni and others, who say such a prohibition would hurt the university’s teaching, research and public service missions.

Hundreds of comments have flooded the inboxes of the UNC Board of Governors, and a public comment session will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Center for School Leadership in Chapel Hill. Two dozen people have registered to speak at the event.

Also, on Wednesday afternoon, the NAACP will hold a rally in support of the center in front of the Chapel Hill post office on Franklin Street.

A limit on the center’s work was pushed by UNC system board member Steve Long, a Raleigh lawyer who has argued the center should not be allowed to initiate lawsuits against other government entities such as counties or school districts.

The center, affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school but supported by private money, has taken on legal cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice. Its clients have typically been poor and minority groups, such as communities battling for water and sewer service or victims of forced sterilization.

A News & Observer review of 279 emails sent to the board during a two-week period in late February and early March showed that only one emailer supported a prohibition on lawsuits. Opponents of the litigation ban say it would mar UNC’s reputation, diminish law students’ educational experience and abandon communities of color who have nowhere else to turn for legal help.

“The Center for Civil Rights and its dedication to serving the community is what attracted me to the law school,” wrote Shana Moore, a 2016 graduate. “Once I did enter the school, the Center gave me the opportunity to gain real world experience and to see actual oral arguments. If the Center is forbidden from entering into litigation, it will ultimately hurt the students.”

Others invoked the memory of the center’s founder, Julius Chambers, a civil rights lawyer who argued watershed cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, considered a giant in the field. Chambers, who later became chancellor of N.C. Central University, endured firebombs and other attacks during his career.

“He has served as a role model for me and many of my peers,” wrote Aviance Brown, a law student at NCCU. “The foundation that he laid at both of these outstanding universities has paved the way for many law students and attorneys that are passionate about serving the local community. To revoke litigation privileges would both undermine his legacy, and send a disheartening message to many students.”

The flood of comments included faculty from across the country. On Monday, the American Association of University Professors joined the center’s supporters.

“Those who wish to curtail the activities of the center are more concerned with serving those with privilege than with protecting the rights of students and educating the public about issues of social and economic justice,” wrote AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum on the organization’s website. “The AAUP believes that externally funded centers must be free to sponsor curricular and co-curricular activities and provide services to the public, and not be limited by having to pass an ideological litmus test.”

In a 56-page report to the board, a UNC-Chapel Hill committee answered questions from Long and fellow board member Bill Webb. The committee included UNC Provost Jim Dean, UNC General Counsel Mark Merritt, law school Dean Martin Brinkley, center director Ted Shaw and former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican who lost his re-election bid last year.

The report responded to specific questions from Long on the center’s pro bono representation of the NAACP and its work in a voter ID case. Long also inquired about whether it would be wise policy to allow other centers to form to pursue advocacy and litigation on issues such as “free enterprise, protection of life, equal rights for women, freedom of religion, etc.”

The report outlined the legal scope of other public university centers and clinics that undertake litigation, including entities at the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-Berkeley. Most of the UNC center’s work does not lead to lawsuits, Brinkley wrote in a statement, but when it does, it is because individual civil rights are most often violated by some government entity.

About 600 UNC law students have worked as interns, and the center also hires recent graduates to serve fellowships for two years. The students and fellows get hands-on experience alongside the center’s staff attorneys.

“In short, the Center trains students to be advocates,” the report said. “In this respect, its function is not to ‘tell both sides of the story,’ any more than any other experiential legal training is duty-bound to do. Lawyers are not expected to represent the interests of their clients’ adversaries. Instead, it is their duty to represent their own clients zealously; it would be unethical to do anything less.”

The report also argued that there is a need for pro bono legal work. There is one legal aid attorney for every 13,170 eligible North Carolinians, the report said.

Clients have also written to the UNC board, praising the center’s work.

Rebecca Copeland, chairwoman of the Coalition for Education and Economic Security in Halifax County, said the center has helped improve conditions for the most vulnerable.

“We are those who’ve lived in racial isolation, carried the stigma of an inferiority complex and were educated in deliberately underfunded schools,” she wrote. “We are the deprived, the disenfranchised. How would we pay for justice? Who would be a voice for us?”

Another client, John Lampe, former mayor of Smithfield, said he and concerned citizens sought the help of the center to improve poorly performing schools.

The citizens group sued the school system, he said because there was no political will to redraw school attendance zones or send money to the worst performing schools.

“I’m not suing because it’s a great idea … it’s a terrible idea,” wrote Lampe, who described himself as a Trump voter, “as conservative as it gets.” “We are suing because we have no other means to get change. It’s an act of desperation.”

About the center, Lampe added: “No one else will do this kind of work.”

The board meets again later this month, but may not take up the issue of the civil rights center until July.

One emailer, Margaret Sheridan, predicted the controversy would cause trouble for the university in the long run.

“Shutting down this center would be a blot on UNC’s record, it will be viewed terribly by future generations,” she wrote, “and would foment an agitated response among students and faculty in an already tense time.”

Brinkley said the intellectual environment of the law school, and the university as a whole, is on the line.

“The proposal will do great damage to one of North Carolina’s most treasured assets: a great state university,” Brinkley wrote.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill