North Carolina college campuses rate highly on free speech, according to this group

Demonstrators loudly urge Chancellor Folt to take down Silent Sam during protest in September

Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.
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Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.

A new free speech policy for the UNC system was forced by the legislature, but a national organization rates North Carolina as the best in the country when it comes to policies that protect free speech on campus.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for civil liberties in academia, released a report in December on how 461 U.S. universities stack up on free speech. The organization judges campuses with its own rating system, with designations of green lights, yellow lights or red lights.

Its study, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2018: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” gave mediocre or poor marks to most universities, but said free speech policies have significantly improved over time.

Fifty-nine percent of the colleges were given yellow lights, denoting policies that are either too vague or restrict speech in narrow ways. Nearly one-third of campuses were given red lights for policies that substantially restrict free speech. Only 35 colleges managed to earn a green light, the group’s highest rating, for policies that protect free speech on campus.

North Carolina had eight green light campuses in the 2018 study – more than any other state. The campuses earning that designation were: Appalachian State University, Duke University, East Carolina University, N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington.

“North Carolina, as far as having policies that respect students’ free speech go, is a national leader,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s vice president of policy research.

Michael Behrent, vice president of the North Carolina chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said FIRE’s reports have falsely promoted the idea that free speech is in danger.

Those who study history and the Constitution say they're seeing a trend in America that could threaten a principle at the heart of our democracy.

“FIRE’s efforts to construe the issue of campus free speech very narrowly, reducing it to the fight against so-called political correctness, actually contributes to efforts to limit free speech on campuses, which, for the most part, is alive and well,” Behrent, an Appalachian State University history professor, said in an emailed statement. “FIRE’s reporting fuels the attitudes that resulted in the passage of the ‘Restoring Free Speech’ law last summer and the recent Board of Governors’ policy.”

Last month, the UNC Board of Governors approved a new free speech policy that sets out a range of punishments – warning, suspension and possibly expulsion – for protesters who disrupt others at the state’s public universities. It followed a law passed by the legislature requiring the board to write a policy and form a Committee on Free Expression to keep watch. Campuses retain the authority to impose the punishments, or come up with their own, for anyone who substantially disrupts or interferes with a speaker.

The law was based on model legislation from the conservative Goldwater Institute, which has pushed to protect conservative speakers who were shouted down on U.S. campuses in several high-profile incidents.

Critics say the new policy actually runs counter to free expression. The AAUP faculty group said the policy would make dissent “scary, unsafe and punishable” and “chill healthy academic discourse and debate.” American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Susanna Birdsong said the policy was overly broad and would run the risk of punishing people for constitutionally protected activities – “an ironic outcome for a policy supposedly designed to protect free speech and free expression.”

Harris said policies that require certain sanctions or take away campus flexibility can be a problem.

“It’ll just remain to be seen how the university enforces it,” Harris said. “If it is enforcing it on people for engaging in peaceful protest, who are exercising their right to free speech in a legitimate way, then that would obviously be very problematic. But when protest crosses the line into what we call ‘a heckler’s veto,’ when you are actually preventing someone else from being heard, then that is not a valid exercise of the right to free speech. Of course, the question is how it will be handled in those sort of gray areas.”

She added, “It will be very important that they err on the side of protecting free speech.”

She said FIRE would continue to watch the campuses to see that they are living up to commitments made in their policies.

Behrent said FIRE is not a nonpartisan monitor of free speech, but instead a partisan organization that attacks what conservatives call political correctness.

“FIRE is in no position to offer an objective assessment of these policies, as it represents precisely the same political forces that support the majority in the General Assembly and the Board of Governors, who are responsible for spreading the largely trumped up claims that free speech on campuses is under threat,” Behrent wrote.

FIRE was founded by a libertarian but the organization is reportedly funded by some conservative interests, such as the Charles Koch Foundation.

Harris said most of FIRE’s money comes from individual donors, and it actively solicits funding from foundations across the political spectrum. Some funding comes from conservative foundations, she said.

“There are a lot of people out there who want to turn free speech into a political issue but for us it’s not,” she said.

She said her organization has recent cases involving the firing of a Black Lives Matter advocate at a New Jersey community college and Fordham University’s denial of recognition of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE, said while North Carolina is among the best states when it comes to free expression on campus, there is still work to do on speech codes at some colleges.

“Until all North Carolina universities eliminate these regulations and work to create environments where dissent and debate is protected and encouraged, I would expect the legislature to continue to take an interest in this important issue,” Shibley said.

Tempers flare and emotions run high in August during a rally and march calling for the removal of the Confederate statue known as 'Silent Sam' on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill