UNC free speech policy moves forward, could lead to punishments for protesters

Protesters call for removal of UNC's Silent Sam statue

A group of about 100 gathered at the "Silent Sam" statue on the UNC campus to protest, seeking for it to be removed from the school grounds, on August 31, 2017.
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A group of about 100 gathered at the "Silent Sam" statue on the UNC campus to protest, seeking for it to be removed from the school grounds, on August 31, 2017.

A proposed campus free speech policy, mandated by the legislature, could lead to warnings, suspensions or expulsions for protesters who disrupt others at the state’s public universities.

The policy was approved unanimously Thursday by the governance committee of the UNC Board of Governors, and will go before the full board next month. It comes at a time when campus free speech has been a hot issue nationally, and locally, as protesters have waged battles about Confederate statues and other controversies.

Such policies have been crafted elsewhere, pushed generally to protect conservative speakers who have been shouted down in recent events at American universities. The University of Wisconsin approved a similar policy last month.

The proposed UNC policy sets out a range of likely punishments for anyone – students, faculty or staff – who “substantially disrupts” the functioning of an institution or “substantially interferes” with the free expression rights of others. The presumptive sanctions include suspension for a second offense and student expulsion or employee dismissal for a third offense. An offending visitor could be temporarily or permanently barred from campus.

Several dozen protesters held small signs demanding the removal of the Confederate 'Silent Sam' statue from the UNC campus as the university held its annual University Day ceremony in Chapel Hill on Oct. 12, 2017. Governor Roy Cooper and UNC Chan

The campuses would have the authority to impose the punishments and could come up with alternatives, according to the policy. Those who are charged with offenses would have procedural safeguards of disciplinary proceedings under campus rules, such as written notice of charges, the right to confront witnesses, put on a defense, assistance of a lawyer and right of appeal.

The policy went through several revisions. In the end, it incorporated some suggestions by students and faculty, who have raised concerns that the policy was vague and went beyond the legislature’s mandate.

Board member David Powers said the process of crafting a policy was as inclusive and well vetted as possible. “When you get a document like this, nobody’s going to be 100 percent satisfied,” he said.

Tyler Hardin, the student representative on the board, said it was important for campuses to make the decisions about punishments. “We were concerned about some of the vagueness of the language in terms of the ‘substantial disruption’ and ‘substantial interference,’ ” Hardin said.

Gabriel Lugo, a UNC Wilmington professor and chair of the system’s Faculty Assembly, said some faculty concerns were addressed. “Our main concern was, is there a reason for the board to go beyond the statute?” Lugo said.

Steve Long, chair of the governance committee, said attorneys had looked at the language and found that “substantial disruption” was used in many policies. UNC’s attorney, Tom Shanahan, said the language was acceptable in terms of what courts have ruled.

The policy says a disruption includes, for example, behavior defined as disorderly conduct under criminal statutes.

“That makes it more clear that we are talking about a substantial disruption,” Long said.

The policy provides that UNC campuses are open to any speaker invited by students, faculty or student groups, but that the universities have the right to impose “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions.

It also says that campuses “may not take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students, faculty, or administrators to publicly express a given view of social policy.”

A group of protesters disrupted and were escorted out of a UNC Board of Governors meeting relocated from UNC-Asheville to Chapel Hill due to security concerns Friday, April 15, 2016. Protesters continued to chant from outside the building during t

The legislature provides that the Board of Governors has a Committee on Free Expression that will meet to review annual reports on barriers to free speech, campus handling of disruptions and “any substantial difficulties, controversies, or successes in maintaining a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues.”

The board was required to carry out the development of a free speech policy by the legislature earlier this year.

Long called the proposal “a consensus free speech policy that will be beneficial to the university.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill