News: CJ Exclusives

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty gives free speech a boost

Faculty Council embraces resolution promoting robust speech on campus, a meaningful step, say First Amendment advocates

UNC students protested at a 2016 meeting of the Board of Governors, inciting controversy over unlawful speech practices. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
UNC students protested at a 2016 meeting of the Board of Governors, inciting controversy over unlawful speech practices. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

CHAPEL HILL — Faculty leaders at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus recently signed a resolution supporting First Amendment rights — a move that’s positive but may have little impact on actual policy, said Laura Beltz, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The Resolution on Principles for the Promotion and Protection of Free Speech was adopted Friday, April 13, by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council. The document is based on the “Chicago statement,” a set of guidelines laid down in 2015 by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago.

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is committed to the production and dissemination of knowledge through open inquiry and the fearless exchange of a wide-range of ideas,” the resolution states. “The ability to speak freely, debate vigorously, and engage deeply with differing viewpoints is the bedrock of our aspirations at Carolina. As the oldest state university in the country, with a long and complex history, we are ever aware that speaking out on controversial issues often raises opposition and efforts to silence the outspoken.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s new free speech resolution isn’t a policy and won’t be enforceable, so “it’s hard to tell what kind of real impact that will have,” said Beltz.

Nonetheless, the resolution sets a good tone for the university, she said.

“Even where there are really good written policies, the administration can still feel a lot of pressure from the public and from the media, and they can often say things that aren’t quite in line with those policies.”

“If you have a document like this that says, ‘it’s not the role of the university to shelter students from offensive speech,’ you can turn to that policy and you can say ‘as reflected in this faculty resolution.’”

North Carolina is a national leader in campus free speech policies, data from FIRE shows. The research and litigation nonprofit ranks more than 450 public and private colleges each year according to First Amendment protections. Schools with restrictive policies — such as free-speech zones — receive red lights. Universities with more vaguely worded speech policies get yellow lights. Green lights go to institutions that don’t impose perceived blocks to the First Amendment.

North Carolina is home to eight green-light schools, far and away the national leader, FIRE told CJ earlier this year. The state surged up the ranks in 2017 when several UNC schools overhauled policies choking speech.

UNC-Chapel Hill, a green-light school since 2016, is one of 36 other institutions to embrace the Chicago statement. Winston-Salem State University, one of UNC’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, adopted a similar resolution in 2015.

A handful of North Carolina lawmakers are outspoken supporters of free speech. The legislature in 2017 passed a bill to fortify First Amendment rights on UNC campuses.

House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech, required the UNC Board of Governors to adopt a uniform speech policy for the university system. It also directed the board to form a Committee on Free Expression.

The board adopted such a policy late last year.

While the UNC system publicly supports free speech now, that backing could dissolve as leadership shifts, Beltz said. That’s where a faculty resolution could be helpful.

“It shows it isn’t just the current administration that cares about free speech. It is the faculty members that care, and the faculty members will be able to express themselves and will uphold those rights at the university. So that’s a great step.”