Scandal Over Handling of Rape Charge Prompts UNC to Suspend Speech Code; FIRE Had Warned UNC that Rule Was Unconstitutional

By June 7, 2013

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., June 7, 2013—The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has indefinitely suspended an unconstitutional speech code used against student Landen Gambill, who drew national attention for her public complaints about the university’s treatment of her sexual assault allegation against a fellow student. Due to the efforts of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), UNC was explicitly aware that this very policy was unconstitutional more than a year ago.

“Despite having the chance to revise this unconstitutional policy years ago, at the prompting of FIRE and its own students, UNC refused to do so. Nevertheless, FIRE is pleased that UNC finally understands that broad and vague restrictions on speech imperil student rights,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “FIRE stands ready to assist UNC in reevaluating its policies in the hopes that the university can avoid further compromising its students’ right to free speech and the embarrassing yet completely predictable disasters that result.”

FIRE has long identified the policy used to charge Gambill, which regulates “disruptive or intimidating behavior,” as a “yellow light” speech code, which means the policy could be used to ban or excessively regulate speech protected by the First Amendment. However, when the code’s constitutional problems were brought to the attention of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp early last year, Crisp deemed himself comfortable with the policy, despite acknowledging that it “could be applied loosely and be problematic.”

When Gambill was brought before UNC’s Honor Court this February, FIRE warned that the charges violated the First Amendment. Former FIRE intern and UNC student David Deerson had already been engaged in campus activism to prompt UNC to revise its policies. Deerson wrote a letter to The Daily Tar Heel informing administrators that the charges against Gambill could not withstand constitutional scrutiny.

UNC has belatedly arrived at the same conclusion as FIRE—but only after substantial embarrassment, including a retaliation complaint filed with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. A university-sponsored outside investigation has concluded that UNC did not engage in retaliation against Gambill for her activism, and the university has suspended the policy. Chancellor Holden Thorp released a statement saying the controversy had led him “to carefully reexamine two issues: (1) how we can continue to protect our students’ right to free speech, and (2) the Honor Code provision dealing with disruptive or intimidating behavior that was the basis of the original charge.”

Universities like UNC will likely face similar problems in the future in the wake of the unconstitutional federal “blueprint” that mandates unconstitutionally broad speech codes on nearly all college campuses. Following the Departments of Justice and Education’s controversial decision to redefine sexual harassment as all “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” (including speech), colleges will increasingly find themselves forced to violate the First Amendment by prohibiting, investigating, and punishing student and faculty speech that cannot be lawfully restricted. The “blueprint” has prompted withering criticism from commentators nationwide. Just this week, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Women expressed deep concern about its impact on academic freedom, and the Los Angeles Times published an editorial calling for its revision.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill