UNC campuses no longer free-speech zones?
RALEIGH — What started with a simple conversation among three students at North Carolina State University ended in a lawsuit.
Hannalee Alrutz wanted something different, but actions by the administration left her little choice.
Alrutz is president of Grace Christian Life, an evangelical campus group at N.C. State with roughly 100 members, who distributed pamphlets and talked to students on campus.
In October 2015, administrators targeted Alrutz and her group.
“Two of our members walked up to a student and asked if they could pray for the student. We pray for students. We also draw out a diagram of how you can get to know God through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice,” Alrutz told Carolina Journal.
An administrator interrupted what was, to Alrutz and her group, a routine process of practicing their free-speech rights.
The Grace Christian Life members were breaking an N.C. State policy, said the administrator. Under university code, the group needed a campus permit for almost any type of noncommercial communication.
“We were shocked because we had never heard of such a policy,” Alrutz said. “We didn’t really know which one it was. It put fear into the hearts of a lot of students in the organization.”
Tough times followed. Some members were hesitant to continue, fearful of the consequences.
Members talked about what to do next. Grace Christian Life hired lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit group defending religious freedom, and the lawyers sent a letter to university leaders asking them to revise the unconstitutional policy.
The university refused.
In April 2016, Alrutz and her group decided to sue.
The decision was anything but easy.
“I love N.C. State. I support N.C. State, right? So I think that was hard. It was hard for me to go up against something that I loved,” she said.
During a preliminary injunction in June 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a stay against N.C. State’s permit code for noncommercial speech.
In July, the university settled the lawsuit, paying $72,500 to cover Grace Christian Life’s legal fees. The university also scrapped its permit policy.
The group was excited and relieved. Some feelings were hurt, too.
“I never set out to run up against N.C. State,” Alrutz said. “I believe in a lot of the things that they promote. And they promote diversity and a marketplace of ideas, and everyone has a voice. And they love that, and they promote that, so the fact we were in this situation didn’t make sense.”
Most North Carolina lawmakers agree with Alrutz. It doesn’t make sense to violate free speech on UNC campuses. Public university students and faculty members should be able to speak their minds without heckling, suppression, or harassment.
After all, that’s the point of the First Amendment.
By an 88-32 vote, in late April the state House passed House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech. All 74 Republicans backed the measure. Only 14 Democrats agreed. The bill would fortify free expression at all 16 schools in the UNC system. The measure isn’t breaking new ground, say the policy advisers and politicians who wrote it. It’s a maintenance effort, a way to ensure UNC administrators are following the law.
But the Democratic lawmakers against it are asking one question: Does campus speech, already covered by the First Amendment, need more protections from the state?
Supporters of H.B. 527 have founded their arguments on a recent report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan research and litigation organization.
The study showed that 15 out of 16 UNC schools violated speech rights in some form.
In 2016, FIRE rated 449 public and private higher-ed institutions nationwide in three categories: red light, yellow light, and green light. Red- and yellow-light schools enforce unconstitutional policies that violate or abuse open speech. Green-light schools uphold First Amendment rights.
The report scrutinizes a university’s harassment, bullying, protest, and tolerance policies, among others.
When H.B. 527 passed, only one UNC campus, Chapel Hill, ranked as a green-light school. Eleven others were ranked yellow, and the remaining four were designated red.
During an April meeting of the House Committee on Education-Universities, Democrats challenged the validity of FIRE’s report. They asked why, if campus speech policies are indeed so constrictive, more people haven’t complained.
Speech violations, while not widely publicized, are very real, said Anna Beavon Gravely, state director for Generation Opportunity, a nonpartisan Millennial group.
For one thing, students fear the consequences of speaking out.
Gravely, who works extensively with UNC campuses across the state, told CJ that students often accept speech suppression and fail to defend themselves because they don’t want to jeopardize their academic standing.
For another, universities so entrenched in social norms fail to inform students of their rights to speech.
“People feel like this is a solution in search of a problem. … In reality this is a problem that has been glossed over for so long it’s to the point that students are not in touch with what free speech actually is,” Gravely said. “Like going to campus and thinking that you can’t speak about issues you care about unless you’re in a specific space [on campus.]”
A speech violation isn’t always as conspicuous as the Grace Christian Life lawsuit. Sometimes a First Amendment violation can be as small as a professor dissuading students from voicing their opinions in class. University professors and guest speakers face intimidation and harassment during public appearances, as well.
UNC leaders aren’t exactly opposed to H.B. 527, but they, too, see the legislature’s plan as unnecessary and complicated.
Free speech is valued and protected on each of the state’s 16 University of North Carolina campuses, said Tom Shanahan, general counsel for the UNC Board of Governors and President Margaret Spellings.
The school doesn’t need to bulk up on its speech protections, Shanahan told the House committee.
Lawmakers worked closely with UNC officials to reach a compromise on portions of the bill that would have allowed lawsuits, Shanahan later told CJ. While that part of the bill was removed, the legislation isn’t perfect, he said.
Some of the legislation’s language is too broad, and the bill appears not to protect dissenting speech, said Susanna Birdsong, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We think [the bill] simply leads to more litigation and ultimately less clarity around what is and is not permissible,” she told CJ.
The ACLU values the right to speech, but universities don’t need First Amendment policing from the bureaucratic Board of Governors, she said.
“We do believe that the UNC system and North Carolina colleges in general are effectively protecting speech on their campuses today, and that there are existing remedies that are working well when they don’t do that.”
But, said Alrutz, some university speech policies, however well intentioned, often carry unintended consequences.
N.C. State’s speech policy was a nonissue until it was aimed at Grace Christian Life.
“Everyone could be affected depending at the time on who is using the policy. … We all have viewpoints, and we all have opinions, so if there’s an arbitrary policy, it’s going to be used unjustly.”
Grace Christian Life just happened to be the group that brought that policy to the surface, proving that no one can anticipate when or how free speech may be threatened on a public campus.
Which, she says, is why free speech protections are vital.
“There’s always a need. Always a need for more.”