RALEIGH — North Carolina has a new security detail to ensure public university campuses stay true to the First Amendment.
House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech, became state law Monday.
The bill — an object of some criticism during the 2017 legislative session — was passed and sent to Gov. Roy Cooper on June 29. Cooper didn’t sign the legislation but allowed it to pass into law.
“It is unfortunate that Governor Cooper did not stand up for the right of free expression and speech in North Carolina,” said Anna Beavon Gravely, state director for Generation Opportunity.
“We hope it is not indicative of his stance on free speech going forward, where unelected employees of state government are able to intimidate into silence the views that are not their own.”
The bill requires the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors to adopt a systemwide speech policy protecting student and faculty rights. Board members will form a Committee on Free Expression to oversee university compliance.
“Advocates for free speech and the First Amendment should celebrate. Students on campus today have the opportunity to experience true intellectual diversity where ideas and beliefs are challenged and sharpened through civil discourse,” Gravely said.
Several provisions were removed from the original bill after UNC administrators objected.
Lawmakers stripped the most controversial portion — a cause of action for lawsuits. They also discarded a point requiring UNC schools to remain politically neutral.
Debate around H.B. 527 was riddled with political differences. Democrats called the bill unnecessary. Republicans said it was essential.
UNC schools have improved speech policies drastically over the past year, reports from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education say.
FIRE, a nonprofit research and legal organization, classifies universities with red, yellow, and green lights. Red schools restrict speech. Green schools protect First Amendment rights.
In 2016, only one UNC school — Chapel Hill — was green.
As of June 2017, four other campuses — UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Charlotte, North Carolina Central, and East Carolina — got green lights.
North Carolina is now a national leader in campus speech protections, said Azhar Majeed, vice president of policy reform at FIRE.
Multiple UNC schools reached out to FIRE last year, asking for advice on how to overhaul speech policies, he said.
H.B. 527 helps cement speech rights at all 16 schools, said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the bill’s chief advocate.
“The new law ensures that our universities will follow the First Amendment and protect the rights of students, faculty, and guests to speak freely on all the issues of the day,” Forest said. “In order for our universities to be effective, the marketplace of ideas must be open on campus. Today, with this bill becoming law, free speech will once again be restored and preserved.”