UNC free speech policy passed by Board of Governors

The Silent Sam statue, a memorial to Confederate soldiers, on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus was covered in black cloth as few hundred demonstrators gathered at the statue Sunday, August 13, 2017.
The Silent Sam statue, a memorial to Confederate soldiers, on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus was covered in black cloth as few hundred demonstrators gathered at the statue Sunday, August 13, 2017.

The UNC Board of Governors approved a new free speech policy Friday that could lead to punishment – warning, suspension, even expulsion – for protesters who disrupt others at the state’s public universities.

The state legislature had passed a law requiring the board to come up with a policy. The vote Friday was unanimous and occurred without discussion, though the policy had been hashed out in previous committee meetings.

Some organizations warned that the policy would chill academic discourse and dissent – essentially damaging free speech on campus. Those opposing the policy were the state conference of the American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union. An AAUP online petition had reached nearly 450 signatures late Friday.

The state AAUP said the policy would make dissent “scary, unsafe and punishable” and “chill healthy academic discourse and debate.” The organization said the policy is problematic because it gives preference to speech over counter-speech.

Others applauded what they said was a common-sense policy.

“Protecting and promoting free speech on campus will improve the academic and social climate at North Carolina’s publicly-funded colleges and universities and will better prepare students for life after they graduate,” said Anna Beavon Gravely, a spokesperson for Generation Opportunity-North Carolina, a right-leaning political advocacy group. “The ability to freely exchange ideas is crucial to having a meaningful debate about any issue and we applaud the UNC Board of Governors for doing the right thing by standing up for the First Amendment rights of students across our great state.”

The 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.

The campuses would have the authority to impose the punishments and could come up with alternatives, according to the policy. If the disruption occurred at the UNC system offices, the system’s General Administration would devise the sanction. 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.

As protesters have waged battles about Confederate statues and other controversies, campus demonstrations have been in the news locally and nationally in recent months.

The law that required a policy was based on model legislation from the conservative Goldwater Institute, which has pushed to protect conservative speakers who have at times been shouted down on U.S. college campuses.

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.”

The legislature required the Board of Governors to form a Committee on Free Expression that would 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 ACLU complained that the policy’s language was vague and broad.

“The First Amendment protects both the right of controversial figures to speak on public campuses, and the right of others to peacefully protest those speakers,” said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Because of its overly broad language, UNC’s policy runs the risk of punishing people for constitutionally protected activities – an ironic outcome for a policy supposedly designed to protect free speech and free expression. Rather than restricting free speech, the UNC Board of Governors should foster an environment where all voices are heard and competing viewpoints can be aired without fear of punishment or expulsion.”

Board member Steve Long said the policy’s language describing disruption was standard in existing campus policies.

“We’re not talking about a small thing,” said Long, a Raleigh lawyer. “We’re talking about material and substantial disruption where basically someone is really intending to just block the proceedings, or prevent people from being heard.”

The policy takes effect immediately.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill