Jon Sanders, a policy analyst and research editor at the Raleigh, North Carolina-based John Locke Foundation, has written an astute column on North Carolina State University’s venerable "Free Expression Tunnel," which has been a flashpoint for controversy in the wake of the election of President Barack Obama.
Torch readers will remember that shortly following Obama’s election, a series of racist messages seeming to threaten harm to the President-elect appeared in the tunnel. Local law enforcement and the United States Secret Service investigated the incident, but neither agency found the graffiti to be criminal, deciding that the statements did not constitute a true threat. Given that the remarks, unsavory though they were, were written on a section of the campus set aside specifically for free expression, the case should have ended there. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
The N.C. State administration has thus far seemed satisfied with these findings and has declined to punish the four unidentified students who came forward to claim responsibility. However, the uproar generated by the comments—the state chapter of the NAACP has called for the students’ expulsion, and N.C. State’s student government has advocated punishment for the students, coupled with diversity training and a revisiting of university speech codes—has prompted University of North Carolina System President Erskine Bowles to appoint a commission to investigate whether the need exists for the implementation of a "hate speech" policy throughout the sixteen-campus system.
Sanders, in a guest column for the Carolina Journal, responds to the furor with a spirited defense of the Free Expression Tunnel as a place for all speech, even the most unpleasant. Sanders writes:
[T]he Free Expression Tunnel is ugly, it’s noisy, it’s transient, it’s offensive, and still it is revered. It is an apt monument to free speech: a picture of the endless stream of messages babbling throughout the Land of the First Amendment. It can be irreverent, sophomoric, ribald, obnoxious, stupid, gratuitously offensive, informative, and occasionally even thoughtful. Nothing painted has any guarantee to last long enough to be seen by anyone, let alone seen without some unwanted commentary on the side. You paint, write, staple posters, or express yourself however you choose in the tunnel with this one rule of the tunnel in mind: all graffiti is fleeting.
In short, the Free Expression Tunnel is a robust monument to free speech, one that looks even stouter in comparison with other universities’ fearful, flaccid approach to speech, where anything that might be construed as potentially disrupting someone’s comfort is the worst thing imaginable.
Sanders’ interest here is hardly academic—he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from N.C. State, works practically within earshot of the campus, and has fond memories of walking through the tunnel in his student days.
Like FIRE, Sanders hopes that the recommendations of the panel, with the mouthful title "UNC Study Commission to Review Student Codes of Conduct as They Relate to Hate Crimes," will not result in unnecessary and unconstitutional speech restrictions that put the freedoms of the system’s students at risk. Sanders articulates well why such measures, if proposed and then adopted, are fatally flawed, and why they should not be tolerated:
This effort, as with the other academic thought-police efforts before it, is doomed to fail and to be an expensive failure at that. If UNC officials implement some new hate-speech codes to impose upon students, they might frighten many into silence, but someone will eventually sue, and UNC will lose. But the cost of defending that unconstitutional policy will be borne by taxpayers across the state, including this one. If UNC officials actually think they are that much smarter and can do a better job writing speech codes than the Founders (or the drafters of the North Carolina Constitution—they wrote that freedom of speech "shall never be restrained"), then it would be liberating to see them have the courage to back their convictions with a personal guarantee. Let them bear the risks of their lunacy; the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for any more of their ridiculous mistakes in this area. They’re the educators; certainly they should be expected to learn.
The commission has a deadline of March 31 to deliver recommendations to Bowles. In the meantime, do read Sanders’ stirring defense of the ugly, yet flawless monument to free speech at N.C. State.