News: Quick Takes

UNC Board of Governors approves free speech policy

UNC President Margaret Spellings. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
UNC President Margaret Spellings. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors approved a free speech policy that allows for termination of professors and expulsion of students.

The policy, approved Dec. 15, outlines the kind of speech that isn’t protected, which includes unlawful harassment, true and credible threats, or unjustifiable invasions of privacy. Most notably, the policy prohibits any action “materially and substantially disruptive” of the UNC General Administration or any other entity of the university system. Speech, such as a particularly disruptive protest that substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others, would violate the policy.

Universities will have discretion to decide on punishment for those who break the rules. Students could face suspension or expulsion from their university, and in extreme cases professors who repeatedly violate the policy could be terminated.

The N.C. chapter of the Association of American University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina have opposed the policy.

“Peaceful protesters chanting outside an event being held in a campus building could be shut down and face harsh consequences, not for blocking an entrance or shouting violent threats, but for simply chanting loudly outside,” the ACLU argued in a press release. “And if any of the protesters had violated the policy before, they would face a harsher punishment that could include suspension or expulsion.”

Despite the opposition, the board passed the policy as part of its “consent agenda,” meaning it was approved without being discussed separately at the Dec. 15 meeting.

Steve Long, a board member who chairs the University Governance Committee, said students will still be able to protest on campus but won’t be allowed to prevent others from exercising their First Amendment rights.

“All sorts of protests have happened at campuses and what this policy does is to say, ‘We really support your right to protest,’ but when it comes to disrupting a public meeting that crosses a line,” Long said. “It starts infringing on the rights of other people that are there, and it does not promote a civil discourse that we want at the university.”

UNC system President Margaret Spellings said the policy is workable.

“We’re not going to see anything that causes major heartburn on campuses relative to free speech or protests,” Spellings said.

Generation Opportunity, a Millennial-oriented group promoting economic and social freedom, praised the UNC BOG for adopting the free speech policy.

“Protecting and promoting free speech on campus will improve the academic and social climate at North Carolina’s publicly-funded colleges and universities and will better prepare students for life after they graduate,” spokeswoman Anna Beavon Gravely said in a press release. “The ability to freely exchange ideas is crucial to having a meaningful debate about any issue, and we applaud the UNC Board of Governors for doing the right thing by standing up for the First Amendment rights of students across our great state.”

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved legislation requiring the UNC system to adopt a uniform free speech policy. The law also required board members to form a Committee on Free Expression to oversee university compliance. House Bill 527, otherwise known as Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech, became law in August without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature.

“The University’s role in supporting and encouraging freedom of inquiry requires assuring opportunities for the expression of differing views regarding many issues in multiple areas of study, research, and debate, including current political and social issues,” the policy says.