Editorials

NC push for campus ‘speech rights’ would limit free speech

UNC student protest speakers took turns speaking out against the hiring of new UNC system president Margaret Spellings during on the steps of Wilson Library during a UNC-CH student/staff/faculty walkout protest on the Chapel Hill campus on March 1, 2016.
UNC student protest speakers took turns speaking out against the hiring of new UNC system president Margaret Spellings during on the steps of Wilson Library during a UNC-CH student/staff/faculty walkout protest on the Chapel Hill campus on March 1, 2016. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Madison, Jefferson, Monroe, Adams — you know those guys, the Founders — might initially applaud the idea that North Carolina legislators are standing up for free speech. Good idea, they’d say. We put that in the U.S. Constitution, don’t you know. Part of a little thing we called democracy.

But once they got to the fine print, and talked it over up there in Heaven’s Library with North Carolina’s Finest such as William Friday (UNC’s 30-year president) and Terry Sanford (Duke president, governor, senator), their opinion would likely grow skeptical.

A Republican push, which has passed the state House, to legislate free speech on UNC campuses would order those campuses be open to all speakers and would require public universities to have sanctions ready for those who disrupted events or protested speakers in ways that made it difficult for them to get their message across. It’s similar to other moves across the country.

This is a bit of not-so-clever deception on the part of Republicans to punish students who exercise their own free speech by letting their feelings be known at a speech by someone with whom they disagree.

In the unstated Republican view, those most likely to be subject to protests are conservatives coming to liberal hotbeds such as UNC-Chapel Hill. GOP lawmakers want to take those protesters down a peg by punishing them.

A chaotic legal battle — ironically, over whether a free-speech law would infringe on free speech — would undoubtedly ensue, along with countless campus protests.

Ironic, it is, that this cynically-couched “free speech” idea comes from the same GOP gang that brought us voter suppression laws and wants to close any research centers on campuses that might support liberal ideas.

Rep. Verla Insko of Orange County, a Democrat, had it right when she said, “My main objection is it’s regulating free speech. We don’t really have any ongoing problems at the university. Problems come up and they are solved.” She also cites the “extreme agenda” of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative group advocating laws like this one. The institute, not coincidentally, is affiliated with the Koch brothers of Kansas, devoted billionaire leaders of the far right.

But the best analysis is from UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Michael Gerhardt, who said, “We ought to be abiding by the First Amendment already.” He sees problems coming if protesters face punishments for disruptive actions.

Should UNC campuses welcome conservative speakers and those who represent controversial views of all kinds? Absolutely, and students and faculty should greet them in a civil fashion and let them be heard. But there hasn’t been a problem of any significance, and thus a questionable solution does not need to be found.

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