Graduate student Maya Little, who poured red ink and blood on the Silent Sam Confederate statue in protest last spring, appealed a 2018 honor court ruling that ended with a written warning and 18 hours of community service for damaging university property.
During a five-hour appeals hearing before a university panel Tuesday night, Little’s legal counsel argued that the sanction was severe and that the case was decided with insufficient evidence. The 3-2 ruling found Little responsible for property damage last fall and was the result of a swing vote by a panelist whose political views, defense of Silent Sam and contentious social media posts compromised his impartiality, argued Gina Balamucki, a UNC law student who represented Little. Except for the vote of that student, Frank Pray, Little would have been found not guilty due to a tie vote.
Balamucki argued that Little, a UNC doctoral student who is black, did not actually damage the statue by throwing red liquid on it, which required only cleaning. Months after her protest, the statue was torn down by protesters. Last month, former UNC Chancellor Carol Folt had the remnants of the statue — its empty pedestal — removed before she stepped down.
“It was an act of contextualization around a racist statue, which has since been taken down by the UNC chancellor herself. This was not a grave offense and this was well within the standards for the UNC community,” Balamucki said, adding, “Ms. Little does not need to learn from this experience. This experience was Maya teaching us something.”
The student prosecutor, Seth Alexander, said that the evidence had been compelling enough to render its verdict last year under the university’s honor code and process. If the appeals panel found that the original hearing was not impartial, Alexander said, then the case could be sent back for a new hearing.
The five-member appeals panel, which included UNC faculty and staff, deliberated late into Tuesday night and had not reached a decision by 9 p.m.
The appeal came the same day that new signs honoring African Americans were placed in The Pit, a popular UNC gathering spot, and on Franklin Street near the site where Silent Sam once stood.
The monuments were created by an unnamed artist in honor of James Cates, a man who was killed in 1970 on the UNC campus, and an unnamed “Negro Wench,” citing a speech from a century ago at Silent Sam’s dedication, when Julian Carr recounted beating a woman on the spot. Activists held a rally in support of Little in The Pit. A notice attached to the newly erected sign stated, “This object of remembrance located on public property may not be removed per North Carolina Statute,” a reference to the 2015 law that had prevented the university from relocating the Silent Sam Confederate monument.
Five witnesses were called to testify at Tuesday’s appeals hearing, but only two of them were physically present. Pray, a law student and former leader of UNC’s College Republicans, testified by phone that his views had no influence on his ability to be impartial as a panelist for Little’s original hearing. He said he focused only on the facts of Little’s case.
“I look at the evidence presented before us, and I look into whether the evidence there meets the charge,” he said.
Pray had made statements about the “beneficence” of Silent Sam, and several years ago had called activists “petulent children” in a tweet directed at a UNC faculty member who had been scheduled to testify on Little’s behalf. He had made his Twitter account private and deleted his Facebook around the time of the hearing. He testified that he had done so mainly because he had been advised to avoid political statements as he began his career as a lawyer, but also because he was aware of the high-profile nature of Little’s hearing.
Aaron Bachenheimer, chair of the appeals panel, questioned Pray about the perception that he might have a conflict of interest. “If you were cognizant of it at that point, did you ever consider that you would recuse yourself for the benefit of the trial?” Bachenheimer asked.
Pray said his personal feelings were irrelevant to the proceeding and that it was not up to him to recuse himself. He said it was up to his fellow panelists to decide whether he should stay.
The chair of the original hearing panel, Amelia Ahern, refused to testify in the appeals hearing despite being compelled to participate. She wrote to Bachenheimer saying she would answer questions only in writing. “I will not put myself in a situation where I will face an undue threat to any physical, mental or reputational harm and/or damage,” she wrote, according to the letter in the case documents.
“During the initial hearing, everyone was here in person for two days,” Balamucki said. “Very few of the witnesses decided to even show up for this trial. ... The lack of care the witnesses showed in following up on this hearing demonstrates that they were excited to come here when they were the ones in charge and got to, like, find Maya guilty. When it’s their responsibility to be here and be questioned by y’all, by the panel, they are not willing to go to those same lengths.”
Little and her representative pointed out that neither the hearing panel nor the appeals panel included black members.
Little has also faced criminal charges related to her protests. Last year, an Orange County judge found her guilty of a misdemeanor but handed down no punishment in the Silent Sam vandalism. In December, she was charged with inciting a riot and assaulting a police officer at a protest.