News: CJ Exclusives

Legislation Would Bar Speech Codes On UNC Campuses

Forest will champion bill establishing free-speech protections, including sanctions for those disrupting classrooms, lectures, and meetings

Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, on Saturday explains the free-speech bill he helped Lt. Gov. Dan Forest draft at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Cary. (CJ Photo by Dan Way)
Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, on Saturday explains the free-speech bill he helped Lt. Gov. Dan Forest draft at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Cary. (CJ Photo by Dan Way)

Students could face punishment, including the possibility of expulsion, for engaging in conscious acts stifling the First Amendment rights of others, and the UNC system would be required to implement free speech rules, under a plan Lt. Gov. Dan Forest hopes to turn into law.

“A bill designed to restore and protect free speech to the University of North Carolina System is very likely going to be introduced in the General Assembly next month,” Stanley Kurtz announced Saturday in Cary during the Civitas Institute’s annual Conservative Leadership Conference.

Kurtz, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, worked with Forest to draft the Campus Free Expression Act.

“To my knowledge it will be the most comprehensive, and ambitious effort ever undertaken to protect and defend free expression at any American college or university, public or private,” and could be a national model, Kurtz said.

The act instructs UNC’s Board of Governors to craft a system-wide policy “that unmistakably affirms the value of free expression,” Kurtz said.

“The statement will make it clear that it is not the proper role of the university to seal individuals from ideas … that they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive,” he said. “In effect, this new statement will supersede, and nullify, any restrictive speech code adopted by any constituent school of the UNC system.”

“Protections for free speech on campus are important safeguards for student learning, and open inquiry. I’m glad that Mr. Kurtz and the lieutenant governor are taking on this issue,” said Jenna Robinson, president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which has chronicled First Amendment abuses on UNC campuses.

“The act expressly bars students, faculty members, employees, or any other member of the UNC system from interfering with the freedom of others to express their views,” Kurtz said. “That means no more shouting down a visiting speaker, and no more obstruction of legitimate meetings and events.”

The act instructs UNC’s Board of Governors to craft a range of disciplinary sanctions up to and including suspension and expulsion for those who interfere with the speech of others.

It instructs the Board of Governors to issue a statement that “defines and defends the policy of institutional neutrality on the issues of the day,” Kurtz said, calling that “a critical component” of campus free speech.

When universities declare an institutional stand on controversial issues such as military policy in the Middle East or the role of government in health care, that places “tremendous pressure on faculty or students who disagree with the university’s policy,” Kurtz said.

That has played out in other ways nationally such as growing campus divestment movements in which administrators push university endowments to sell off stock in oil companies, or to divest from the state of Israel.

“It’s often argued that colleges are to avoid such divestment schemes because of their fiduciary responsibility to protect and enlarge their endowments,” Kurtz said. Political divestment policy “inevitably places unfair pressure on faculty and students who do not share these political views.”

Kurtz believes freshman orientation should include information about new free speech policies and guidelines, and new policy guidance should be issued for common readings assigned to entering freshmen.

A study by the National Association of Scholars concluded common freshman reading assignments “all too often amount to a kind of straightforward political advocacy for progressive social causes,” Kurtz said.

Stamping “the institutional imprimatur of the university on one side of a political debate” should be eliminated, or balanced with thoughtful, competing viewpoints, because a public university represents all citizens, not just those who embrace certain beliefs, Kurtz said.

The act calls for a new committee on free expression within the Board of Governors, charging it to issue a public report annually on the status of free expression, administrative discipline for the disruption of speech, and institutional neutrality in the UNC System.

Some students at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University were supportive of the act.

“I know we’re in a PC culture where everything is considered offensive,” said Jonathan Kluger of Cary, a sophomore business administration major at N.C. State. He said the new policy should contain specific guidelines of permissible speech.

“I wouldn’t be OK if someone came into my classroom and disrupted my class with a demonstration,” he said. Yet he supports free speech, even the frequent anti-Israel, pro-Palestine protests on campus. Kluger is Jewish.

“It has to do with the matter of respect people have. It doesn’t have necessarily to do with policy, because obviously there’s people who won’t follow policy,” said N.C. State sophomore Chandler Cowell of Pinehurst, a sustainable materials major. But he is in favor of the concepts embodied in the Campus Free Expression Act.

The freshman reading his class was assigned was a book called Tomorrow’s Table about genetically modified vegetables, and a “global vegetable” economy. “Right off the bat when you get here you realize this school is all about sustainability,” Cowell said. Freshmen feel “shaped a little bit” by the readings.

Natasha Dease of Charlotte, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore, welcomes the act because some students “let their frustrations get the better of them, and to prevent that from happening I think it’s important to have measures that will counteract that, or even just like make it so that kind of behavior isn’t encouraged.”

Dease, who is black, said some African-American student protests have disrupted meetings, and in that scenario discipline is warranted. What the punishment is, and how severe, is where specific guidance is warranted, she said.

“I think policies are important, especially for the protection of the students themselves,” said Robin Jessany, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore from Westchester County, N.Y.

“I don’t think anyone should be silenced,” Jessany said. “Everyone’s opinion deserves to be heard. And just because you don’t agree with it I don’t think that gives you the right to attack or yell at them.”