UNC to look into student claim that Silent Sam creates racially hostile environment

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance office will look into a complaint from students that the Silent Sam Confederate statue creates a racially hostile environment on campus.

Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer representing the UNC Black Law Students Association and other students, wrote to university officials Sept. 13, saying that he was prepared to file a federal lawsuit if Silent Sam isn’t removed.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s general counsel, Mark Merritt, responded this week, saying the complaint would need to go to the university’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office for further review. That office handles discrimination, harassment and retaliation allegations. Merritt wrote that administrators there would contact the students to hear their concerns.

Merritt and UNC system Senior Vice President and General Counsel Tom Shanahan expressed skepticism about whether the statue’s presence constitutes a violation of law. In a separate letter to Dellinger, Shanahan wrote, “we do not believe the facts and circumstances you have outlined in your letter would support a cognizable claim for relief” under federal laws.

Merritt requested that Dellinger cite the legal authority “regarding how Silent Sam’s presence creates an environment that is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it alters the conditions of education, employment or participation in a University program or activity, thereby creating an environment that a reasonable person in similar circumstances and with similar identities would find hostile, intimidating or abusive.”

Dellinger responded Friday by writing that the university’s equal opportunity office should have removed Silent Sam long ago. He also cited a number of legal precedents in which courts found a discriminatory environment was created by a single verbal or visual incident, including cases involving racial epithets or symbols such as the Confederate flag.

Dellinger wrote that “there is extensive case law that would support a finding that a towering armed soldier dedicated to white supremacy and placed permanently in the middle of campus creates a hostile environment.”

In recent protests around the statue, black students have said they find it difficult to walk past the statue on the way to class. Some said it made them feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. Students have held protests and sit-ins near Silent Sam since the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August. They launched a boycott of university commercial enterprises this week.

On Friday, Dellinger released a statement that said: “I am surprised that UNC is contesting the fact that Silent Sam creates a racially hostile environment. The case law is clear that even a single verbal or visual incident can cause a hostile environment and that Confederate symbols are evidence of racial harassment.”

In his letter more than a week ago, Dellinger cited several sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in his claim that UNC violates federal law by keeping the Confederate statue on campus.

He is representing 12 individual students, the UNC Black Law Students Association and UNC law professor, Erika Wilson.

UNC officials have said they believe it’s in the best interest of campus safety to remove Silent Sam. But they also stress that they don’t have the legal authority to take it down, despite Gov. Roy Cooper’s suggestion that an exception in a 2015 state law protecting monuments would allow it. Lawyers for the university say that exception clearly only applies to a situation where a building inspector determines the statue poses a physical danger.

The N.C. Historical Commission met Friday to consider a request from Cooper to move other Confederate monuments from state property, but Silent Sam was not on the agenda.

In their letter to Cooper last month, UNC President Margaret Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and the chairs of the UNC Board of Governors and UNC Board of Trustees asked the governor to convene the historical commission to consider what to do with Silent Sam. The letter was sent the day before a large rally was held at the statue, and UNC officials said they were worried about students’ safety.

About half the members of the UNC Board of Governors then signed a letter harshly criticizing Spellings and board chairman Lou Bissette for sending a letter to the governor without their approval.

Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper, said the governor’s office reached out to UNC system officials to see if they wanted Silent Sam included in Cooper’s monument removal petition to the historical commission ahead of Friday’s meeting. “They let us know that they did not at the time,” Porter said.

UNC-Chapel Hill spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said campus officials did not send a petition to the commission, either.

“We are carefully following these proceedings, which we hope will shed light on what standards the commission will be using to evaluate such matters,” Denny said in a statement.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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