I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's First Amendment Day observance last Thursday. I joined Jenna Ashley Robinson of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and Stephanie Davis, president of UNC's College Libertarians club, on a panel to discuss free speech at UNC in particular and on our nation's campuses in general.
The Daily Tar Heel campus newspaper covered the event and subsequently ran an editorial about free speech at UNC. The editorial board affirmed its support of FIRE's mission, saying, "[w]e admire the organization's pursuit of making speech as broadly applicable as possible. Students should be able to express themselves freely on the basis of the First Amendment," and "[w]e find solidarity with FIRE's attempt to make policies as accessible as possible." However, the DTH also expressed its opinion that UNC's culture is supportive of free speech and that FIRE should reevaluate its yellow-light rating of the campus, saying, "we think that our culture, when taken with [UNC's speech] policies, warrants us a green light for speech."
It is generally a good sign when an independent campus newspaper believes that free speech is well protected on campus. After all, student journalists are often the victims of campus censorship. However, UNC students should understand that FIRE's Spotlight ratings are not reflections of the "culture" of free speech on campus. Our green-, yellow-, and red-light ratings reflect only the written or otherwise explicit policies of the campus. This is the only way that FIRE can hope to be objective and accurate about the more than 400 campuses we rate. Spotlight ratings are only part of the story of free speech on a particular campus—but they are a very important part, since it is hard (but unfortunately not impossible) to punish a student for violating a policy that doesn't exist. The fact that UNC is a yellow-light school is no fault of the students at all, and no insult to the student body is intended. When a school has something other than a green-light policy, that is solely the responsibility of the administration.
However, in the matter of having a free speech culture, it's clear that some UNC students still have a distance to go. The DTH was gracious enough this morning to publish my letter to the editor responding to its editorial, which I have reprinted in full below.
TO THE EDITOR:
I was gratified to read your Oct. 4 editorial about your support of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's (FIRE) efforts to protect free speech at UNC and campuses across the nation ("Shed light on free speech"). As the speaker named in the editorial, I would like to make a couple of observations.
First, while free speech may be the norm at UNC, incidents like the violent reception given last year to former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo show that there are a significant number of students who believe that vigilante censorship is acceptable. It is thankfully rare on American campuses for police to have to use force to disperse unruly hecklers who are trying to disrupt a speech. The fact that this did happen at UNC suggests that those expressing minority or controversial views are not entirely safe on UNC's campus.
Second, regardless of culture, UNC officials are constitutionally bound not to enact or enforce policies that conflict with the First Amendment. Failure to do so can have real consequences. Not only do such policies unconstitutionally chill protected expression, but if UNC were to use a policy to punish a student who merely posted material that someone found "offensive," UNC would be subject to a First Amendment lawsuit that it would almost certainly lose. Such a defeat would be both an embarrassment and a waste of tuition and tax dollars.
UNC need not make many changes in order to bring its policies completely in line with the First Amendment. Doing so would cost nothing. Most importantly, it is the right thing to do for UNC's students and faculty members, who deserve all the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
Senior Vice President
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
FIRE would be pleased to work with UNC as it revises its policies to protect free speech on campus.