Report blasts UNC’s ‘speech codes’

January 11, 2006

by Jane Stancill in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Most University of North Carolina campuses have policies that restrict free speech and violate the Constitution, according to a report Tuesday by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.The analysis was commissioned by the Pope Center, a Raleigh organization that often champions conservative causes, and was conducted by FIRE, a national group that takes on free speech issues on both ends of the political spectrum.The report suggested UNC campuses are vulnerable to lawsuits unless they change their so-called “speech codes.””Hopefully they can bring themselves in line with the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas they claim they are,” said Greg Lukianoff, interim president of FIRE.

The analysis found that 13 of 16 campuses have at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts free speech. “This is pretty stunning,” Lukianoff said, calling the offenders “red light” campuses. Only one campus — Elizabeth City State University — has no rules that limit free expression, the report said.Lukianoff said universities across the country have trampled students’ and professors’ free speech rights in the name of civility and anti-harassment rules. Furthermore, he added, anti-discrimination policies have infringed on students’ First Amendment right to free association.UNC policies that regulate speech are both unconstitutionally vague and broad in many cases, Lukianoff said.Among the examples cited Tuesday:

* Appalachian State University prohibits “abusive language, insults, taunts” directed at another person.

* Fayetteville State University prohibits “vulgar language.”

* N.C. Central University bans “statements of intolerance.”

* East Carolina prohibits “obscene, vulgar, loud or disruptive language” and offensive conduct.

* UNC-Chapel Hill’s sexual harassment policy provides examples of harassment that include “sexually explicit jokes or anecdotes.”

Lukianoff said the message to UNC campuses is: “We’re telling you, you could get sued and you will lose.”

UNC President Erskine Bowles, who took office Jan. 1, said he had not seen the report yet.

“I’m going to read it,” Bowles said Tuesday after his first formal appearance at the legislature. “If we have a problem, then we’re going to address it.”

Both the Pope Center and FIRE have been frequent critics of UNC campuses. The Pope Center has blasted UNC for a lack of political balance and “dumbed down” courses. It has issued critical reports on higher education spending, affirmative action and faculty pay.

FIRE has backed students who stood up to policies at UNC campuses, including protesters at UNC-Greensboro and a religious fraternity that sued UNC-CH. In the UNC-CH case, a federal judge last year ordered the university not to enforce its anti-discrimination policy on the fraternity, after members refused to sign the policy.

George Leef, executive director of the Pope Center, said the UNC system should pay attention to the report and drop unconstitutional policies.

“This is good free advice to the university and Erskine Bowles,” Leef said at a news conference at the legislative building in Raleigh.

The report drew attention from state Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican from Mocksville. “It’s not a good idea if you don’t allow different views and different opinions to come up,” he said.

If university leaders don’t take action, Brock said, he would support legislation to change UNC policies in the next session.

View this article at The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

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