The holiday season is upon us again. Christmas trees, menorahs, and lights festoon homes and streets. Shoppers drive around mall parking lots in a desperate search through a sea of cars for a parking space. Holiday specials take to the airwaves. Americans numbering in the millions travel to visit far-away family members. And some students in the University of North Carolina System get their fundamental rights stomped on. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
FIRE’s press release today details the newest story of repression in North Carolina’s public university system. Two students at UNC Greensboro (UNCG) face punishment for protesting the university’s establishment of so-called free speech and assembly areas on campus. These areas are supposed to be to set aside as parts of campus where students can protest without fear of punishment or of viewpoint-based censorship—but, of course, the real effect of these “free speech zones” is to make it clear that outside of the zones, such protests are subject to onerous regulations or even prohibitions. And since the vast majority of a campus is invariably outside the “free speech zone,” students get the message that their constitutional rights don’t apply on the vast majority of the campus. FIRE’s press release and the related case materials have all the details, so I won’t take readers through everything here, but this is a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment. After all, if students, who are voting-age adults, can’t exercise free speech on a public university campus—a place whose very purpose is to serve as a “marketplace of ideas”—does freedom of speech have any meaning at all?
The UNC System has long been recognized by FIRE as one of the premier offenders against the U.S. Constitution. In fact, no other system of schools has had more public FIRE cases. Let’s review:
December 2001: UNC Wilmington opened and examined the content of Professor Mike Adams’ e-mail account without his permission. His offense: criticizing over e-mail a student who blamed the United States for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
December 2002: UNC Chapel Hill told a Christian club that it may not require that its own leadership be composed of, well, Christians—a violation of freedom of association. One day after FIRE exposed the situation, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser reversed the decision and recognized the group.
Throughout 2003–2004: Delayed but apparently not deterred by the outcry resulting after FIRE first exposed its contempt for freedom of association, UNC Chapel Hill during this time sent letters to approximately 17 groups on campus that required their leadership or membership be Christian. The university told the groups that they may not discriminate on that basis. One, a Christian fraternity called Alpha Iota Omega, contacted FIRE and eventually sued the university. The group received a preliminary injunction in its favor, but the case continues in litigation.
December 2005: Free speech protestors at UNCG face hearings for exercising free speech.
This is truly a remarkable record. Also worth nothing is that while the events in 2003 and 2004 did not take place around the holidays, the UNC System appears now to have returned to this less-than-venerable tradition. North Carolina is a very pleasant place to live; I myself lived there for seven years. Yet North Carolinians would be wise to be wary of sending their children to a school in the UNC System until it begins to show something other than contempt for the rights of its students.