News: Quick Takes

Campus free-speech bill passes House largely along partisan lines

A peaceful faculty protest during a 2016 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
A peaceful faculty protest during a 2016 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

House members on April 26 passed House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech, but not without some partisan sparring over the necessity of the legislation.

H.B. 527 has been subject to debate since its first committee hearing this month.

The bill is designed to maintain freedoms and bolster speech protections across the UNC system.

Among other things, it directs the UNC Board of Governors to adopt a campus-wide speech policy stating, “The primary function of each constituent institution is the discovery, improvement, transmission, and dissemination of knowledge by the means of research, teaching, discussion, and debate.”

It also directs the board to form a Committee on Free Expression. That body would enforce the speech policy across all UNC campuses.

Several provisions were removed from the original bill after UNC administrators objected to them.

Lawmakers stripped the most controversial portion — a cause of action for lawsuits. They also discarded a point requiring UNC schools to remain politically neutral.

UNC’s administration has accepted the compromises, but H.B. 527 isn’t perfect, Tom Shanahan, general counsel for the UNC Board of Governors, told Carolina Journal.  

Democratic lawmakers agree.

The bill is unnecessary, said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange.

“Young people come to college to learn from free speech, and they do it best from experience, not from rules,” she said during floor debate. “So I don’t like this sort of, ‘We don’t trust you. You’re not grown up enough … you don’t have the expertise.’ I don’t like this sort of rule-setting. I trust our campuses. They’re professionals.”

H.B. 527 is a solution in search of a problem, and speech violations should be dealt with in court, not pre-emptively regulated, Insko said.

Insko’s viewpoint ignores real problems plaguing UNC students and faculty, said Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“Are you not aware that constituent institutions of the UNC system over the years have been sued and have lost litigation against faculty members where their free speech rights have been suppressed?” he asked.

Millis also pointed to student groups who have sued over First Amendment abuses.

North Carolina State University in Raleigh last year overhauled some of its rules after an evangelical campus group sued over free speech violations.

The plaintiff, Grace Christian Life, filed a lawsuit against the university after group members were told they needed a permit to talk about religion with students while handing out fliers on campus.

N.C. State settled in July 2016, paying the plaintiff’s $72,500 in legal fees.

Such use of taxpayer dollars could, and should, be prevented by proper protections and guidelines, Mills said.

The bill passed 88-32, with the support of all 74 Republicans and only 14 of the 46 Democrats. It now heads to the Senate.