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N.C. State free-speech decision could set precedent

Legislation proposed by Forest could prevent further violations, says advocate for Millennials

North Carolina State University recently tossed out a rule that evangelical campus group Grace Christian Life said blocked its free-speech rights, a move that may set a precedent for statewide reform of controversial speech policies on University of North Carolina system campuses.

GCL on Tuesday abandoned a lawsuit against N.C. State following the school’s decision to dissolve a policy that required student groups to apply for a permit before they were allowed to distribute literature or solicit other students on campus. Anna Beavon Gravely, state director of Generation Opportunity, a free-market group representing Millennials, told Carolina Journal a legislative proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest protecting free expression on campuses could prevent similar instances of free-speech violations at other North Carolina public universities.

The conflict at N.C. State began during April when university administrators prevented members of GCL from passing out flyers because the group had failed to secure a permit.

Group members, who had been issued 20 different permits prior to the incident, sought legal representation from Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy organization that defends the free-exercise rights of religious individuals and groups.

“The university only selectively enforced its permit policy and did so against Grace Christian Life,” ADF stated in a July 19 press release, following N.C. State’s decision to dissolve the rule in question.

“Students of any religious, political, or ideological persuasion should be able to freely and peacefully speak with their fellow students about their views without interference from university officials who may prefer one view over another,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “N.C. State did the right thing in revising its policy to reflect this instead of continuing to defend its previous policy, which was not constitutionally defensible.”

The university’s settlement came after N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson announced in April that the policy was not discriminatory, and that free speech never had been targeted by his administration.

“The implication that an organization has been treated differently on our campus because [it is] a religious group is false,” Woodson wrote in an April 28 statement. “N.C. State reviews requests solely for time, place, and manner considerations without regard to messaging or beliefs.”

In a letter released after N.C. State’s decision to settle the ADF lawsuit out of court, Woodson stated that the university chose to settle to save legal costs. Under the settlement terms, N.C. State owes ADF $72,500 in legal fees.

While Woodson continues to call the policy fair, Generation Opportunity’s Gravely and others say that administrative permission never should be required of students who want to exercise speech rights on a public campus.

The university’s decision to dissolve its policy is a step in the right direction, she said, citing UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UNC-Greensboro as other campuses that should follow N.C. State’s example.

“We’re hoping that these campuses and these administrators understand that there is a lot of censorship that takes place on campus,” Gravely said. “And the question that I always ask is how are we harmed by that? How is society harmed as a whole?”

“So many of our greatest inventions, additions to society, take place during those four years on college campuses or in the college age,” she added. “So when students are not able to express different opinions, how is society harmed? All opinions, even those that are unpopular, should be respected and protected.”

Gravely said passage of the Campus Free Expression Act —  a legislative proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest that may be introduced at the North Carolina General Assembly next year — would be a big help. The bill would remove from UNC campuses limits on where students can speak freely, and would place disciplinary actions on individuals who disrupt public meetings or block free expression.

“The worst offender, in my mind, is students silencing other students, because it’s becoming a culturally acceptable norm,” Gravely said. “And that’s really the true harm of censorship on campus — the fact that we’re starting to believe that if we say something that offends somebody else, that we should be called out by regulations, by the law.”

N.C. State student Madeline Finnegan, who serves as president of UNC’s Association of Student Governments and is the ex-officio member of the Board of Governors, said that student censorship across UNC’s campuses is less of an issue than what is often portrayed in the media, and that — prior to GCL’s lawsuit — she hadn’t heard of any complaints about freedom of speech under the university’s policy.

“I think I can really only speak from what I’ve seen and talked about to other student leaders, but I, at least, haven’t seen any other instances like GCL pushback to the rule at all,” Finnegan said, adding that she viewed N.C. State’s now-obsolete permit rule as a way for student groups to reserve tables in certain areas across campus. “I have not really seen a lot of struggle or anguish to get those [permit] spots.”

“I can’t speak for every single [campus], but I think [the lawsuit] was surprising more than anything,” she continued. “It seems to me that if there was a problem with the policy, or if GCL felt like they weren’t getting adequate access to students, that should have been a conversation rather than a lawsuit filed.”

As far the legislature’s proposal to address free speech on campuses, Finnegan says that — while she thinks protection of First Amendment rights is important — she has reservations.

“I understand the want and the reasoning behind a lack of disruption during meetings,” Finnegan said. “And I think that’s really important for getting things done and making decisions on behalf of students, but I also know that there is a lot of discontent among students across the system — and if we quiet that, to what extent do we quiet it?”