News: CJ Exclusives

Campuses ‘Restrict Speech Rights’

FIRE-Pope Center survey finds UNC doesn't protect free speech rights

RALEIGH – Most University of North Carolina campuses are “failing miserably” in upholding the First Amendment rights of students and faculty, and speech-limiting codes at 13 campuses could be overturned in court, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Thirteen University of North Carolina campuses have speech code policies that limit free speech, according to the report, the findings of which were announced at a press conference on Tuesday.

The report should serve as a warning to the UNC system that, should it be sued over the policies, it would lose in court, said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s interim president, who co-authored the report with Samantha Harris, a FIRE program associate.

Two other schools in the system have speech codes that ban to a lesser degree some aspect of free speech, while only Elizabeth City State University does not limit free speech, according to the report. However, all institutions within the UNC system have non-discrimination policies that violate the First Amendment, the report found.

The report was the result of a survey of First Amendment issues within the UNC system by FIRE and the Pope Center. The survey was undertaken, said Lukianoff, because FIRE kept having to return to North Carolina to deal with violations of the First Amendment at several UNC campuses. He mentioned in particular a case at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the school has told Christian organizations that it cannot discriminate against non-Christians in membership and leadership positions, and one involving UNC-Greensboro’s so-called “free speech zones.”

“Today, rules and regulations that restrict expression or dictate matters of conscience are often found at college or university campuses — including at the 16 schools that comprise the University of North Carolina System,” Lukianoff said. “As public institutions — agencies of the State of North Carolina — the universities in the UNC System are legally bound to uphold the First Amendment rights of their students and faculty. Unfortunately, they are failing miserably.”

Accoring to the report, no UNC-Chapel Hill student is allowed to make “abusive” or “hateful” remarks, and some schools’ speech codes limit speech that is considered to be “taunting,” “public profanity,” “loud,” or “vulgar.” During the press conference, State Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Davie, Rowan) joked that if schools were to adhere to their own policies many fight songs sung at athletic events would be in violation.

“This is something that needs to be addressed by the university system,” Brock said of the report’s findings.
George Leef, executive director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said UNC should take this report seriously, even if no student or faculty member has made a specific complaint.

“UNC should treat this report the same way it would treat a report saying that there were hazardous conditions at many campuses,” Leef said. “It should act now, rather than waiting for trouble to develop.”

Shannon Blosser ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.