CHAPEL HILL — A proposal to block academic centers from entering into lawsuits won’t harm the University of North Carolina law school’s Center for Civil Rights, Steve Long, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, told Carolina Journal.
In February, Long introduced a plan to bar the UNC center — which conducts research and operates under the umbrella of the university’s law school — from entering into litigation, especially in cases involving government entities.
Some CCR staffers and supporters expressed anger at the move.
Ted Shaw, the center’s director and a professor at the UNC School of Law, told CJ earlier this year that abandoning litigation would harm the center’s ability to function.
Additionally, school administrators at N.C. Central University said the plan might damage operations at the university’s legal clinics.
The UNC board heard complaints and concerns during a May 11 public hearing.
Administrators, professors, students, and community members crowded into a Chapel Hill board room. Some signed up to speak before a panel of board members. Some held up protest signs in silence. Others wore yellow armbands to show solidarity with the CCR.
Thus began two hours of emotional presentations from UNC deans, professors, and civil rights activists.
Hundreds of emails, both for and against Long’s proposal, were sent to the board.
Politics is the ruling force behind the board’s attempt to ban litigation for the CCR, Shaw told the panel.
“The breadth of this proposal is striking. It is an attack on academic freedom.”
Founded in 2001 by civil-rights pioneer and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund leader Julius L. Chambers, the center has long advocated for low-income and minority communities, Shaw said.
Litigation is a cornerstone of the center’s mission, he said.
The CCR has participated in civil rights litigation against school boards, cities, and counties.
Additionally, the center provides “experiential learning,” involving both research and litigation. Cutting out any part of the organization’s function is a disservice to law students, several UNC professors say.
Representatives from N.C. Central said people could misinterpret Long’s proposal and use those misinterpretations against traditional legal clinics.
The proposal is too broad and harsh, said Fred Williams, director of legal clinics at N.C. Central.
“In the language of this proposal, it is in essence saying that while clinics may continue to exist, they cannot bring lawsuits against local, state, and federal government entities. I want to point out how that doesn’t make any sense,” Williams said.
The purpose of civil rights law is to provide people protection from offenses made by the state, he said.
The ban on litigation applies only to academic centers, not to clinics, Long told CJ.
The Board of Governors will address the concerns of administrators from N.C. Central’s law school.
“We will likely add a statement to the policy stating that this has no application to law clinics. But that is a tool that the opponents are trying to use.”
Academic centers aren’t governed by rules of the American Bar Association, and therefore should not be treated as law clinics, he said.
UNC’s law school submitted a report to the board that misrepresented the roles of academic centers in litigation, he said.
In the report, the law school cited the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas Law School, and the Frank J. Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School as peer centers with services similar to the CCR.
Both centers conduct all litigation by using university law clinics under the jurisdiction of the ABA, Long said.
The litigation ban isn’t meant to be political, Long said.
“This is not a vendetta, and my position would be the same whether the center was liberal, conservative, or moderate. And I have said that to [Shaw.] But I can say it until I’m blue in the face. I would feel the same way about any center that should not hire a full-time lawyer to litigate against cities and counties.”
The center should have full freedom to operate outside of the UNC system, said Long, who proposes the organization be moved out from under the jurisdiction of the system.
The center is privately funded, and its staff uses office space off-campus.
“It should be an independent organization,” Long said. “It absolutely should be an independent organization. Then they can operate as they wish.”
In July, the Board of Governors’ committee on educational planning, policies, and programs will review all the materials presented, as well as reports submitted by the UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central law schools.
A vote may be taken at the board’s September meeting.
It’s too early in the process to predict what might happen, board Chairman Lou Bissette told CJ.