CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina has no business entering into lawsuits against cities, counties, and the state, Steve Long, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, has said for months.
A policy-making committee of the board agrees.
Earlier this year, Long introduced a proposal to block the UNC Center for Civil Rights from filing lawsuits or appearing in court. The center — classified as a research organization — is affiliated with UNC’s law school, and represents low-income clients.
Tuesday, the board’s education committee gave Long’s proposal a green light. It’s now up for a vote before the full body.
The lopsided vote, 5-1, was unexpected. Committee Chair Anna Nelson cast the lone dissenting vote. Board newcomer Darrell Allison abstained.
Several UNC administrators see a flawed proposal. In July, the board received a letter signed by 600 law school deans, faculty members, and administrators around the nation protesting the adoption of Long’s proposal.
Blocking the center’s ability to litigate would tarnish UNC’s national reputation, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt told the committee.
UNC’s law school depends on the center’s civil rights law training, she said. The CCR could become a law clinic under the American Bar Association, but UNC can’t afford it, she said.
“I think the key message is that we do not have in place any easy path,” Folt said. “If the Board of Governors chooses to accept this new policy, we will have to rethink how we train students in civil rights.”
The university system has more than 20 legal clinics, many of which teach civil rights law, Long told Carolina Journal.
The UNC School of Law offers a civil legal assistance clinic to third-year students. The program caters to low-income clients, and focuses on “employment, housing, and other civil rights and economic justice cases.” The CCR occasionally refers cases to the clinic.
University law clinics are excluded from the litigation ban, which applies only to academic centers outside ABA jurisdiction.
Still, protesters and CCR staffers have slammed board members.
Long’s proposal is purely political, said Ted Shaw, the center’s executive director.
“With all due respect to the primary proponent of this proposal, I’ve come to think of him as kind of a ‘moving assassin,’ because his justifications [for the proposal] have changed over time,” Shaw said before the committee.
“It’s an ideological hit directed at the Center for Civil Rights. It can be denied, but I think if we’re candid, everybody knows why we’re here, and what the politics are.”
After the meeting, CJ asked Long to respond to Shaw’s claim. He took a breath and paused for several seconds before answering.
“It was a highly inappropriate comment. It was shameful,” he said.
“He makes that argument frequently.”
The litigation ban has always been about preventing an academic center from suing the government, Long added. “It gets back to the point that we’re a university, not a law firm,” he said.
Nelson said the board shouldn’t be involved in the first place. “I would rather we weren’t having this conversation at the Board of Governors. Ideally, matters such as this should be handled at the campus level,” she said.
“For me, regardless of which side you stand on, there is something larger at stake. The university itself. This proposal poses a reputational risk to the university, which transcends the specific circumstances here.”
The next full board meeting is in September.