Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is poised to set a national example of allowing lawful protest while protecting free speech. But campus administrators and law enforcers so far have come up short, some experts say.
As public universities bend under the force of rampant — sometimes violent — political unrest, all eyes turn to UNC-Chapel Hill, where the toppling of a Confederate statue recharges a national conversation about public safety and the future of free speech.
On Aug. 20, a group of about 250 protesters, including students and activists, marched on Silent Sam, a memorial to UNC students who died in the Civil War that formerly stood on the Chapel Hill campus. Long a firestarter for arguments, Sam was cut down by protesters with ropes and torches.
More protests followed Aug. 30, with supporters and opponents of Silent Sam facing off around the statue’s pedestal. No injuries were reported, but the crowd was rowdy. Pepper spray was used to maintain order. A handful of people were arrested for brawling or resisting officers.
It’s the job of any public university to protect First Amendment rights as fully as possible, said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group. That can be tough during a demonstration where public safety is at risk.
UNC’s handling of the Silent Sam issue matters because “universities should always be looking for a way to show how civil society can air our disagreements in a civilized fashion, keep people safe, and respect their liberties,” Shibley said.
While the end-of-month counter-protests were handled pretty well, the university failed to set that example Aug. 20, he said.
Then, law enforcers stood back and watched as protesters pulled Silent Sam from its pedestal. Emails and texts later showed officers were directed not to engage with the group. High-level officials at UNC-Chapel Hill also ordered barricades around Silent Sam be removed before the protest, sources told Carolina Journal.
The scene, though not violent, mirrors incidents like those in Berkeley, California; Columbia, Missouri; and Charlottesville, Virginia.
In 2015, the University of Missouri faced upheaval after students launched campus protests linked to race and workplace benefits. The situation became toxic when Melissa Click, a professor at the prestigious journalism school at Columbia’s campus, tried to forcibly shut down journalists covering the protests.
A hunger strike and football team boycott ultimately unseated the university system’s president, and the chancellor at Columbia. Even so, the stream of protests ultimately drowned the university, and its reputation. Enrollment has dropped 35 percent in the two years since the upheaval, The New York Times reports. Budget cuts from lost tuition have forced the university to close seven dormitories and cut 400 jobs.
Berkeley in 2017 withstood a series of rough protests against alt-right provocateur and Donald Trump advocate Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak Feb. 1 on the University of California campus. Left-wing protesters set fires, threw fireworks, attacked members of the crowd, and threw rocks at police. Pro-Trump rallies followed, bringing with them a new onslaught of violence.
Later in 2017, city and campus police officers stood aside during a massive protest in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Officers were overwhelmed and unable to control the mob, the city’s police department said.
In Charlottesville on Aug. 14 2017, a march of white supremacists, which began on the University of Virginia campus, erupted into turmoil. Police did little to break up the violence over the course of days, stating law enforcers couldn’t cope with the flood of protests and counter-protests. Officials argued their actions were reasonable and sufficient, reported The Washington Post.
Recent events at UNC Chapel Hill are mild by comparison, but they do reinforce questions about what comes next in an age where universities are in political turmoil, Shibley said.
Campus riots and lackluster law enforcement set a tone for future protests, he said.
“If people see they are able to silence the other side, and the law is going to stand around while they are allowed to do that, that’s going to encourage further repetition of that behavior,” Shibley said.
“Conversely, if they see that both sides are able to speak, and that everybody’s right to expression is going to be expected, I think they’ll see that as well and keep that in mind and act on it.”
It’s up to leadership to ensure that future demonstrations are safe and civilized, but also meaningful and effective.
“Police should say, ‘How can we make this happen in a way that is peaceful, and so everyone has their say,’” Shibley said. “To the extent that it’s possible, police should be trying to make sure the protest can happen the way the protesters would like it to happen within the bounds of the law.”
Silent Sam has been shrouded in free speech violations since it first was placed on Chapel Hill’s campus, said Marty Kotis, a member of the UNC Board of Governors.
Confederate veteran Julian Carr — at the statue’s 1913 dedication — praised the Confederate army’s “saving the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” recalling horse-whipping a “negro wench” for insulting a white woman on Franklin Street.
Carr’s actions were an affront to free speech, much like the mob behavior seen during recent protests against Silent Sam, Kotis said.
“I watched video of an angry mob surround a conservative activist reporter and appear to attack him simply for his views. Swift police intervention and restoration of law and order prevented this from spiraling into more violent attacks. Thank goodness our law enforcement had more ethics…than the federal troops that simply stood by and watched Carr commit a heinous act.”
“History could easily repeat itself,” he said. “It is imperative that we enforce campus codes of conduct and our laws. Violence and threatening others’ safety cannot be tolerated.”
No one at UNC Chapel Hill encourages illegal activity, and the removal of Silent Sam is a crime that will be punished, UNC system President Margaret Spellings, the UNC BOG, and UNC Chapel Hill’s Chancellor Carol Folt said after the incident.
Several people so far have been arrested and charged for their involvement.
Folt, and other university administrators, are in a tough spot, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
“I have a significant amount of sympathy for them,” Taylor said. “But at the same time, this has been a long road, and it was probably inevitable that it would end this way. There have been some opportunities along the way to deal with it differently.”
UNC stands at a defining point, Taylor said. While the situation hasn’t escalated so far as the protests that tanked the reputation and operation of the University of Missouri, North Carolina’s state and campus leaders should take notice.
Silent Sam was a sore subject, and no one really wanted responsibility for his fate, Taylor said.
Going forward, state political leaders can avoid similar instances if they take ownership and fix the problem — before it becomes a national scandal, Taylor said.
“If the governor and General Assembly [quit] moaning and whining about it, they can do something. They have the power.”
Ultimately, other universities should consider Silent Sam a loud warning against allowing rudderless leadership and lack of responsibility, Taylor said.
“I don’t think [Silent Sam] is going to have long-lasting political effects on its own. I think it’s symptomatic of significant differences in politics, not just in North Carolina, but across the country at the moment.
“I think it’s a lesson in how not to lead. There are plenty of people you could point a finger at, all the way from local law enforcement up through the university’s leadership — right up to the General Assembly and the governor.”
CJ Associate Editor Kari Travis is a 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.