UNC System Suppressing Free Speech on Campuses, Says FIRE

January 17, 2006

By Jody Brown at Agape Press

A new report finds that 13 out of 16 institutions in the University of North Carolina system have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts free speech. The report — released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Pope Center for Higher Education — accuses UNC of being especially hostile to Christian students and their religious liberty.

The report is entitled “Report on the State of the First Amendment in the University of North Carolina System” — and FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff says what is revealed in the report “ought to outrage everyone” in the state. A press release on the report offers several examples:

  • A ban on “insults, taunts, or challenges directed toward another person” (Appalachian State University).
  • A practice of outlawing “statements of intolerance” (North Carolina Central University), which FIRE says mirrors a speech code in Pennsylvania that was deemed unconstitutional.
  • A requirement that all students “respect the dignity of all persons” and “strive for the openness to learn from differences in people” lest they be punished (UNC Asheville).
  • A policy outlawing “disrespect for persons” (UNC Greensboro), which FIRE describes as “Orwellian.”
  • Two instances in which FIRE says it had to intervene to protect Christian student groups that were “threatened with dissolution” for refusing to admit members who did not share their beliefs (both incidents at UNC Chapel Hill).

According to Lukianoff, the UNC system is merely one among many in the U.S. that are guilty of restricting students’ free speech. “North Carolina exemplifies so much that is wrong with American higher education today,” FIRE’s interim president offers. “From its unconstitutional speech codes to its quashing of religious groups, the UNC System contains perfect examples of all the things we are fighting nationwide.”

Officials at UNC have not been able to defend in public what they do in private, says FIRE program officer Samantha Harris. She believes constitutional violations in the UNC System go far beyond efforts to silence religious groups, and she cites several of the examples offered in her group’s press release as evidence of that.

The vice president and general counsel for the university system has called the report “a case of smoke with no fire,” and reports that UNC rarely receives complaints regarding the infringement of free-speech rights on its campuses. But Harris says UNC officials are missing the point.

“Having unconstitutional policies is the problem,” Harris says. “Students are not necessarily going to complain that their free-speech rights are being infringed.”

She explains that when restrictive policies are in place, students and faculty are reluctant to voice their concerns for fear that they might violate those policies and might find themselves in trouble with campus authorities. “That’s what we call a ‘chilling’ effect on speech,” she says, “and that’s one of the worst aspects of these policies.”

Harris contends that while public universities do have to prevent true harassment and obscenity, they have no right to interfere with the First Amendment rights of their students.

FIRE is urging schools in the UNC System to review their speech policies and ensure they are in accordance with First Amendment standards set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. As they are, says the education rights group, those policies and restrictions on religious groups likely could stand up to a legal challenge. Another remedy, says FIRE, would be for the North Carolina legislature to craft a uniform anti-harassment policy that would instantly make obsolete the speech codes on the various campuses.

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Schools: University of North Carolina School of the Arts University of North Carolina – Wilmington University of North Carolina – Pembroke University of North Carolina – Greensboro University of North Carolina – Charlotte Cases: University of North Carolina System: State of the First Amendment