News: CJ Exclusives

Campus free speech bill heads to governor

Measure designed to protect robust expression across UNC system

(Photo by Kari Travis)
(Photo by Kari Travis)

RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers have given the green light to a bill protecting free speech at public universities.

In a 34-11 vote, House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Free Speech, passed the Senate on Wednesday.

The House, which passed H.B. 527 in April, on Thursday voted 77-34 to concur with the Senate’s revised version of the bill.

H.B. 527 requires the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to adopt a uniform speech policy for all campuses in the UNC system. It also directs the board to form a Committee on Free Expression. That body would enforce the speech policy across all UNC campuses.

The bill is headed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Kentucky, and Tennessee have passed bills protecting campus speech, said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan research and litigation organization.

FIRE helped Lt. Gov. Dan Forest — the main backer of the project — write the bill.

“The General Assembly’s passage of this bill is a great step toward restoring and preserving free speech on our university campuses,” Forest told Carolina Journal. “Our public universities should be places where free expression occurs, and this bill makes it clear that the marketplace of ideas is back open on campus.”

H.B. 527 is a solution in search of a problem, but free speech always should be a priority for public universities, said Sarah Gillooly, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

“In the rare circumstances where there is an issue with the stifling of free speech on campus, appropriate remedies exist and are working,” Gillooly told CJ.

“We will continue to monitor the implementation of H.B. 527 to ensure it protects the speech of all students, including counter protesters. In a country that protects and values the right to free speech, the answer to speech we don’t like is more speech — not censorship.”

North Carolina is now a leader in the fight to protect campus free speech, FIRE spokesman Daniel Burnett said.

FIRE divides public and private universities into three rankings: red light, yellow light, and green light. Red-light schools are the worst offenders of free speech. Green-light schools are the best at upholding First Amendment rights.

North Carolina takes top billing nationally for the number of universities with First Amendment protections. UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, N.C. Central University, UNC-Charlotte, and East Carolina University are ranked as green-light schools. Duke University, a private institution, also has a green-light rating.

As of last year, only one UNC school — UNC-Chapel Hill — was rated as a green-light campus.

The U.S. has 32 green-light schools, 28 of them public.

Free speech legislation similar to North Carolina’s H.B. 527 is pending in Michigan and Wisconsin, Cohn said.

California, New York, and Washington also are considering First Amendment protections for state campuses.

Evergreen State College, a public liberal-arts university in Washington, became a hotspot for controversy in May after Bret Weinstein, a progressive biology professor, protested the college’s suggestion that white students and faculty leave campus for a day.

Outrage ensued.

Students gathered outside Weinstein’s office and shouted vulgarities. Some occupied the office of the college’s president, George Bridges, even going so far as to escort him to the bathroom.

Other on-campus protests turned violent.

During a June 15 demonstration by Patriot Prayer, an “alt-right” group of nationalists and populists, its leader Joey Gibson was struck in the head and pepper-sprayed by a group of 200 Evergreen students dressed as ninjas.

Evergreen is ranked as a red-light school. Washington has no green-light campuses.

FIRE is ready to work with any college or university that wants to follow North Carolina’s example and protect First Amendment rights, said Laura Beltz, the organization’s policy reform program officer.

Click here to read more about the progress of free speech on UNC campuses.