Saying no to censorship at UNC-CH

Yik Yak is a phone app that allows users to post short comments anonymously. UNC-CH officials have discussed trying to ban it.
Yik Yak is a phone app that allows users to post short comments anonymously. UNC-CH officials have discussed trying to ban it.

In the summer of 1963, the North Carolina legislature passed a law banning “known members” of the Communist Party from speaking on UNC campuses. The organized opposition to this “speaker ban” to keep politically unpopular and purportedly harmful speech off campus is a celebrated time in the history of the UNC system. It cemented the legacy of longtime system President Bill Friday and even rates a campus monument today.

That’s why it’s embarrassing that in 2015 UNC-Chapel Hill is thinking about bringing it back.

Like the 1963 law – ultimately struck down by a federal court in 1968 – the target of this censorship attempt is speech that most Americans find annoying, meritless and even harmful. But this time the target isn’t Communist speakers from beyond the campus gates, but anonymous student speakers making their often offensive and unpleasant opinions known over the Internet – specifically, through the location-based chat application Yik Yak, which allows users to write 200-character posts that can be read by people within 1.5 miles.

Winston Crisp, UNC vice chancellor of Student Affairs, is reportedly “examining options” for dealing with Yik Yak, saying, “I think it adds little to no value to our community and creates more problems for our students than it will ever be worth.” Is there any doubt that in 1963, most Americans would have said exactly the same thing about the rhetoric of Communist supporters of the civil rights movement that prompted the speaker ban?

Given the fact that most students have smartphones now, a decision by UNC to block network access to Yik Yak (a phone app) is unlikely to be effective – except perhaps for poorer students who can’t afford expensive phones and data plans. But that makes the idea no less illiberal.

UNC isn’t alone in being uncomfortable with the tenor of anonymous or pseudonymous (under a false name) discourse over the Internet. It’s true that under the cover of anonymity, people are willing to say things they would never say in public. Human nature being what it is, much of that is unpleasant or mean. But the ability to truly speak freely that anonymous speech makes possible is also critically important to a free society.

Expression unattached to real names has long been a vital tool for social change. Thomas Paine’s anonymously published Common Sense and the pseudonymous Federalist Papers emphasize its importance in America’s founding. And the 1957 case of NAACP v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court struck down the state of Alabama’s attempt to make the NAACP divulge its donor list, serves as a much more recent reminder that remaining nameless in the midst of controversies can be important.

Authorities never have liked anonymous speech, and they never will. The reason Iran and Turkey sporadically ban the optionally pseudonymous Twitter is that it’s so easy to use to oppose and circumvent repressive laws and actions. And even though repression is probably not UNC’s motivation now, what about in future analogs to the civil rights movement? If tools for anonymous speech had been available to civil rights organizers in 1963, they most certainly would have used them to express their discontent with Jim Crow laws and to organize protest marches and sit-ins.

Once the precedent is set, can we trust the judgment of unknown bureaucrats or lawmakers 20 years down the road to censor only the “bad” stuff? The fact that we can’t is why the First Amendment puts the protection of free speech beyond the reach of government officials – including public university administrators.

Let’s hope Dean Crisp and UNC’s lawyers make the right call and say no to Internet censorship. If they don’t, it’s possible the courts will make the right call for them. Again.

Robert Shibley of Apex is an attorney and executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.