This week’s guest “Daily Journal” columnist is Jon Sanders, policy analyst and research editor at the John Locke Foundation.

The current issue of N.C. State Alumni Magazine contains article on “Things We Love About N.C. State.” The nominative plural pronoun refers, of course, to the target audience: alumni of North Carolina State University, generations of people who successfully completed degrees at the state’s largest public university, and who no doubt know the campus well.

One of the things we love about N.C. State is:

Say what you want about it (and on its walls), it’s one of the best ways anywhere for students to get their voices heard.

Here’s what you can say about the Free Expression Tunnel. It’s ugly. It rarely ever approaches anything close to beauty. It’s no Bell Tower, no Court of the Carolinas, no Lake Raleigh. It is a bewildering effluence of scribbles, scrawls, murals in miniature, rude drawings, odd treatises, advertising, vulgarities either aimed at private individuals, public figures, rival schools, and so forth or merely for vulgarity’s sake, and plenty of other comments that defy general description. At first glance, it’s not something you would suspect of being beloved.

The Free Expression Tunnel lies beneath the railroad tracks bisecting the campus between many residential halls and the halls of learning. For that reason, it is a heavily traveled student thoroughfare. It apparently attracted graffiti through the normal course of things, but in the 1960s it was designated as a graffiti wall specifically for the purpose of free expression. It quickly became a campus tradition.

In my years at N.C. State, the only time the short trip through the Free Expression Tunnel was aesthetically pleasing was after the Ski Club painted the entire tunnel, top to bottom, in a mural depicting skiers along a snowy terrain under a night-blue sky. The effect was such that the atmosphere even seemed markedly cooler. And the usual petty humorists who apparently lived to deface student groups’ advertisements held back for a day or two, as if they also appreciated the effect. But only for a day or two. Within a week the mural had been buried under an avalanche of multihued graffiti-as-usual.

So the Free Expression Tunnel is ugly, it’s noisy, it’s transient, it’s offensive, and still it is revered. It is an apt monument to free speech: a picture of the endless stream of messages babbling throughout the Land of the First Amendment. It can be irreverent, sophomoric, ribald, obnoxious, stupid, gratuitously offensive, informative, and occasionally even thoughtful. Nothing painted has any guarantee to last long enough to be seen by anyone, let alone seen without some unwanted commentary on the side. You paint, write, staple posters, or express yourself however you choose in the tunnel with this one rule of the tunnel in mind: all graffiti is fleeting.

Your expression may well be covered over that very night. It makes sense: not only does it illustrate that speech can be overcome with more speech, but also, the thing being such a dog’s breakfast of scrabbling that no one could be expected to tell what’s new and what’s not, it’s just easier to pick out a spot wherever you want to start painting. For all you know, you may be painting over someone else’s hours-old masterpiece yourself.

In short, the Free Expression Tunnel is a robust monument to free speech, one that looks even stouter in comparison with other universities’ fearful, flaccid approach to speech, where anything that might be construed as potentially disrupting someone’s comfort is the worst thing imaginable. With “Tuffy” the Strutting Wolf mascot swaggering about with his chest thrust out proudly, however, it would simply not do for the university he represented to be a panic of screaming mimis when it came to an offensive graffito. This is a research university containing many of the state’s highest minds, after all.

That’s why we love the Free Expression Tunnel. Nevertheless, in the overall academic environment just described, it’s seen not as a monument to free speech, but an excuse for muffling it.

Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, some students went to the Free Expression Tunnel and wrote some highly offensive racial comments aimed at the president-elect. Despite decades of offensive comments appearing daily, if not hourly, in the Free Expression Tunnel, these particular comments were treated differently from all the other stupid, angry, hateful, obnoxious, gratuitously offensive comments painted there and shortly obliterated by others’ reaction or someone’s indifference. The university leadership quickly went into guilt-ridden self-confession mode, announcing to the world that something entirely un-newsworthy had happened: students wrote something offensive in the Free Expression Tunnel. News services followed suit, breathlessly reporting on the very grave sentiments aimed at the next president of the United States of America. The state office of the NAACP, seizing this straw like a drowning man grasping at reeds on the riverbank, began to work the controversy for all it was worth, calling among other things for the students responsible to be expelled. Dutifully cowed, the self-important popularity contestants suffusing N.C. State’s student government drew up a resolution seeking the immediate punishment and even expulsion of the students, later amending it to seek only university punishment and the infliction of diversity training on them, along with calling for the university to revisit its speech and conduct codes.

Very unhelpfully in this time of white-hot moral indignation for show, the Secret Service and the Wake County District Attorney’s office investigated and said no crime had occurred. Law enforcement seemed to notice a minor detail lost by the administration, students, media, and grievance industry: the offensive comments were written in an area of campus specifically set aside for Free Expression. They were quite inflexible on that point and appeared thoroughly unschooled in academe’s preference for relativism, in which, of course, free expression is only “free” when it serves the common good, something they alone are able to determine on an ad hoc basis. Why, those simpletons seemed to think that “Free Expression” meant free expression!

Not satisfied that N.C. State’s bonfire of inanities remain on the one campus in the system that it involved, UNC President Erskine Bowles joined in and appointed a group that he seriously called the “UNC Study Commission to Review Student Codes of Conduct as They Relate to Hate Crimes.” This alphabet soup is tasked with setting a policy for UNC student codes of conduct and with recommending whether all students should be forced to take diversity training. Is it too early to remind the reader that all this officious huff and puff is over some writing on a wall designated for free expression?

One wishes earnestly but with little reason to hope that somewhere at N.C. State or within the UNC system could be found an educator who could use the incident as a teachable moment about the importance of free speech and the free society’s ability and responsibility to use more speech rather than tyranny to overpower noxious speech. They all apparently want to use the incident to justify stifling speech on all UNC campuses. The one hope left, that the study commission is merely a way for Bowles to table the ludicrous idea till passions cool and either reason prevails or a new Goldberg is found, seems a vain one at best.

This effort, as with the other academic thought-police efforts before it, is doomed to fail and to be an expensive failure at that. If UNC officials implement some new hate-speech codes to impose upon students, they might frighten many into silence, but someone will eventually sue, and UNC will lose. But the cost of defending that unconstitutional policy will be borne by taxpayers across the state, including this one. If UNC officials actually think they are that much smarter and can do a better job writing speech codes than the Founders (or the drafters of the North Carolina Constitution — they wrote that freedom of speech “shall never be restrained”), then it would be liberating to see them have the courage to back their convictions with a personal guarantee. Let them bear the risks of their lunacy; the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for any more of their ridiculous mistakes in this area. They’re the educators; certainly they should be expected to learn.

Rather than wasting time hammering out speech policies that are bound to be unconstitutional and are demonstrably unnecessary anyway (some scribbles at one university on one day on a “free expression” wall means it’s high time to rewrite the speech codes throughout the whole system?), it would be much wiser to drop the issue entirely and let N.C. State students return to their time-tested, well-practiced way of dealing with free expression that’s offensive: ignore it, drown it out, or just clown it on the side. If UNC wants to export a lesson from the Free Expression Tunnel, what better lesson could they find? Imagine: UNC students systemwide able to deal with offensive ideas with aplomb rather than immediately being reduced to a mewling, quivering heap.

And while we’re wishing, may the adults at UNC finally resist the statist impulse and teach.