UNC Board closer to embracing free-speech protections

By: Kari Travis - Carolina Journal

CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina Board of Governors is one step closer to adopting rules that protect First Amendment rights on UNC campuses.

Earlier this year state lawmakers passed House Bill 527. It directs BOG members to draft a systemwide policy enforcing speech protections for students and administrators. A board committee unveiled the policy earlier this week.

Some Democrats objected to H.B. 527, and it became law without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature.

Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Kentucky, and Tennessee have passed similar bills.

The legislation followed more than a year of notable protests and disruption during university events — including UNC board meetings. Multiple protests — some involving students and faculty — led to temporary meeting shutdowns, violence, and even arrests.

The board’s policy will simply get all UNC campuses on the same page when it comes to the First Amendment, said board member Steve Long. The Raleigh-based lawyer, who has been at the center of recent controversy over UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights, helmed a subcommittee to draft the policy.

A consistent set of rules will help administrators know how to deal with “substantial disruptions,” Long said.

A “substantial disruption” includes disorderly conduct, curfew violations, and trespassing, the policy draft states. In some cases, punishments include suspension or expulsion of students. Employee dismissal is possible in extreme circumstances.

Such a policy could chill speech rather than encourage it, some say.

The board’s proposal is too broad and open to interpretation, Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union, has repeatedly stated.

Not so, Long told Carolina Journal. The policy was thoroughly vetted by university lawyers, and faculty members “gave it a good kick in the tires.”

UNC students and staff members also offered input, said UNC President Margaret Spellings. The full board will vote on the policy in December.

Kari Travis is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.

Kari Travis

Carolina Journal