Fiddling While UNC Burns

By on January 12, 2006

Tuesday’s release of the FIRE and Pope Center Report on the State of the First Amendment in the University of North Carolina System has already begun to get reaction from University of North Carolina administrators, who appear to be in deep denial about the fact that liberty is in a sad state on nearly all of their campuses. To wit, this quote from an Associated Press article that ran in the Durham Herald-Sun:

Leslie Winner, vice president and general counsel for the university system, said the report will be examined carefully.
 
“Open debate and free dialogue are hallmark values of the university system and we very, very rarely get any complaints that anyone feels their free speech rights are being infringed,” Winner said.
 
“We do have time, place and manner restrictions that say you can’t have your protest on the classroom steps when people are trying to get in, but it never means you can’t have your protest.”
 
She questioned the need for the report and called it “a clear case of smoke with no fire.”

No fire? Two students at UNC Greensboro (UNCG) face disciplinary hearings on January 20 for protesting a free speech zone outside the free speech zone. In a January 5 letter to FIRE, Winner herself admitted that “the Chancellor [of UNCG] has established a committee to re-examine the UNC-G outdoor assembly policy in light of recent case law.” So UNCG is dragging two students through a trial for doing something that is not only constitutionally protected, but that the university itself is not even sure should be a rule. I guess the unjust punishment of merely two students is “smoke” to UNC. I wonder—how many would it take for there to be a “fire”?
 
Further, it isn’t that surprising that there haven’t been that many complaints about UNC’s restrictive policies. First, most students aren’t constitutional lawyers and don’t realize that these arbitrary restrictions on their rights are unconstitutional. Second, how eager do they expect students to be to complain about a policy that can punish students for their speech? It is important to keep in mind here that students know that “campus justice” is often anything but, and that getting punished in school can have serious, lifelong effects by adversely affecting one’s career prospects. How eager do they think students are to risk their future earnings on the uninformed decisions of a student or administrative tribunal?
 
But don’t worry: Winner assures us that “[o]pen debate and free dialogue are hallmark values of the university system.” UNC would prefer that you pay no attention to FIRE’s 26-page report that says otherwise—and proves it by quoting the UNC schools’ own policies. If only UNC’s lawyers could muster up as much attention to correcting unconstitutional policies and stopping the persecution of these students as it evidently can for public relations, then liberty at North Carolina’s state colleges and universities would be in much better shape.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Greensboro