‘Daily Tar Heel’ Article Shows that Free Speech Has a Long Way to Go at UNC

By on January 30, 2012

Fresh off reviewing our recently issued speech code report, the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (UNC) highlights the fact that UNC at present maintains three "yellow light" speech codes infringing upon students’ freedom of expression. These policies have no place at an institution like UNC that not only is legally obligated to uphold the First Amendment, but is morally obligated to follow through on its statements of being an institution committed to free speech and the exchange of ideas.

Writing for the Daily Tar Heel, Amanda Albright quotes our Samantha Harris, who points out that UNC’s speech codes—as "yelllow light" policies are wont to be—are vague on their face and could be interpreted or misapplied to censor protected speech:

"Because of (several policies’) vague wording, it is also difficult for students to know exactly what is prohibited and what is allowed, which leads to a chilling effect on student speech," she said.

An example of one of these policies is the University’s Instrument of Student Governance – a policy that governs the Honor Court’s actions. The policy prohibits conduct that "abuses … or otherwise interferes with another so as to adversely affect academic pursuits."

"This is very vague," Harris said. "What does it mean to have an ‘adverse effect’ on someone’s opportunities to benefit from University life?"

While this should be worrying to any student at UNC, the same apparently cannot be said for the UNC administration:

Winston Crisp, UNC-CH’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said he is comfortable with the yellow light rating because the University’s policies focus on conduct rather than speech.

"I understand that adverse effect could be applied loosely and be problematic," he said. "But we are talking about actions that make it difficult for people to access education." 

That’s not exactly the ringing endorsement of free speech principles that one hopes to hear from a senior official at a public university. And given UNC’s problems respecting First Amendment rights in the past, most recently in the case of Emeritus Professor Elliot Cramer, I would be concerned if I were a UNC student wishing to speak freely and engage in expressive activities on campus. Quite simply, the First Amendment deserves better at UNC.

As the Daily Tar Heel article notes, UNC is not an exception in the state of North Carolina. Indeed, several other institutions in the state received our worst, "red light" rating when surveyed for our report. I’m looking at you, Appalachian State University, Davidson College, East Carolina University, North Carolina Central University, UNC – Greensboro, Wake Forest University, and Winston Salem State University.

Happily, the article cites an example of speech code reform elsewhere to which UNC and other North Carolina schools can aspire. It comes from their neighbors to the north at the University of Virginia:

The University of Virginia, one of the 14 colleges that received a green light rating from FIRE this year, had a sexual harassment policy similar to [Appalachian State University's], and it received a red light rating for the policy in 2010.

But after hearing a speaker from FIRE, UVA’s Dean of Students Allen Groves said he began altering the school’s policies, which he said were too broad and punished offensive speech but not necessarily sexual harassment.

Here’s hoping that UNC and its in-state compatriots follow the example set by the University of Virginia. Their students would certainly be better off for it.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill