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FIRE interviews UNC faculty council committee member about new free speech statement

FIRE’s Mary Zoeller recently caught up with Lindsie Trego, a graduate student at  the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and UNC’s School of Law, to talk about her work as a member of the UNC faculty council’s communications working group. Last week, the faculty council voted to approve a policy statement based on the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago — better known as the “Chicago Statement.” The faculty council’s resolution, entitled “On Principles for the Promotion and Protection of Free Speech,” borrows from the Chicago Statement while adding UNC-specific provisions.

We heard firsthand from Lindsie — who was a FIRE legal intern in the summer of 2015 — about the challenges the committee faced and what she learned while serving on a committee working to adopt a statement on free expression.

Mary: Lindsie, thanks for joining us. It’s great to have you back with us on Newsdesk. So, tell us a little bit about what you’re up to now, and how you got involved with the faculty council and its communications working group.

Lindsie: Thanks for having me! It’s great to be back. Since interning at FIRE, I’ve been chugging along on my dual J.D. and M.A. in Mass Communication at UNC, and I’m now about to graduate! I was asked to join the faculty council’s communications working group early in the spring semester. My adviser had suggested they include me because of my thesis research on censorship of college media, and because of my experiences interning with FIRE and the Student Press Law Center working on law and policy issues related to student expression.

Mary: Was the decision to adopt this statement in response to any events on campus? What did the committee hope to accomplish by passing this statement?

Lindsie: My understanding is that some students and faculty members had approached the faculty council asking for adoption of the Chicago Statement, and the council formed the working group in response to these requests. I don’t believe any specific free speech issue spawned the decision. Instead, we took the requests as an opportunity to make a forward-looking statement.

Mary: As many of our readers know, UNC at Chapel Hill is a “green light” institution, meaning its written policies do not seriously imperil free speech. In light of UNC - Chapel Hill’s written policies, why did the faculty council decide to adopt this statement in addition to those policies?  

While policies can shape culture, principles are a forward-looking statement of what we want our culture to be.  

Lindsie: I’m so proud of UNC for being a “green light” school! However, I think there are a few reasons that the working group and the faculty council still felt it important to adopt a statement in support of free speech, even given UNC’s relatively good policies. First, there is a difference between policy and culture, and while policies can shape culture, principles are a forward-looking statement of what we want our culture to be. I think some on the working group saw that although UNC has great policies, there is still room for improvement in creating a speech-friendly culture. Coming up with principles about free expression can foster a campus culture of open and robust debate by reorienting individuals to think more critically about how they engage with one another.

Second, there was a lot of discussion both in the working group and on the faculty council about whether there is a free speech problem at UNC, and if not, why would UNC need a statement of principles. But this confuses what principles are: A guiding statement of collective belief. Principles aren’t necessarily meant to cure an already-existing problem, but a statement of principles should guide how we react if a problem does arise.

Finally, North Carolina recently made the news when the state legislature passed House Bill 527, related to free speech on campus. The law is exciting because it has potential to provide additional protections for free expression at all UNC system institutions. However, because the power to create policy based on this new law is with the Board of Governors – which has a murky history with free speech and academic freedom – many faculty members were excited to have the opportunity to say, “Hey, we believe in free speech, free inquiry, and robust debate too,” and to say that in their own words.

Mary: FIRE often discusses the merits of the Chicago Statement. However, sometimes we get pushback from administrators, faculty members and students arguing against the need for a free speech policy statement. What type of feedback or criticism did you hear during the drafting and adoption process?

Lindsie: The biggest concern regarded the University of Chicago Dean of Students, John Ellison’s 2016 letter to freshman referencing “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” A few faculty members expressed concern that by affirming the Chicago Statement, UNC-Chapel Hill would also be affirming this letter, along with its seeming prohibition on trigger warnings. Some faculty wanted to retain the ability to offer warnings about difficult subject matter when they want to, and otherwise manage their classrooms the ways they see fit.

The working group chair, Dr. Mimi Chapman, reminded faculty that UNC would be affirming the free speech principles in the Chicago Statement, not the 2016 letter. This conflation of the Chicago Statement and the 2016 letter seems to be a common misunderstanding. However, nothing in the Chicago Statement tells professors that they can’t offer a warning to students before discussing issues like rape or abuse. Nothing in the Statement dictates how professors manage their classrooms. Questions of classroom management are largely up to individual faculty members, as they should be. Instead, the Statement focuses on how the faculty envision the public square and the general culture at UNC. It means students shouldn’t be silenced while protesting in The Pit, that speakers shouldn’t be disinvited, and that faculty should foster debates among ideas, just to name a few examples.

Mary: What strikes you as the most important aspect of the statement? What was it about the specific words of the Chicago Statement that made the committee want to adopt such a large portion of it?

Lindsie: For me, I think the most important part of the statement is, “It is for the individual members of the University community . . . to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” This is the step so many forget. Some see the movement for free speech as asking that they sit down, shut up, and listen to voices they find vehemently disagreeable, sickening, and atrocious. But free speech isn’t about sitting down and shutting up; it’s about standing up and speaking up. It’s about having the freedom to call out those disagreeable, sickening, and atrocious statements for what they are by explaining why they’re wrong. I really hope members of the UNC community will see that. I want to see more protests and counter-protests. I want to see more students standing up against administrative decisions with which they disagree. I want to see more debates on campus, and I hope this statement can foster a culture in which those things can happen.

One thing that struck the working group was how long it took University of Chicago’s committee to draft the Chicago Statement, and how much careful review went into the process. Early in our own process, we spoke with Geoffrey Stone, who chaired the Committee on Freedom of Expression that drafted the original statement. After he shared with us how detailed their process was, we felt that it made sense to take advantage of Chicago’s careful review and close vetting process by adopting the entire statement. However, we wanted to make sure to put it in a Carolina context. The original statement offered a preamble discussing the history and mission of University of Chicago and explaining how the statement fit into that context, and we wanted to have a similar statement regarding our own mission. Thus, we decided to go the route of adopting the Statement, but affixing our own preamble and postamble.

But free speech isn’t about sitting down and shutting up; it’s about standing up and speaking up.  

Mary: Why do you think it is important for universities to adopt principled stances on free expression before controversy erupts on campus?

Lindsie: Once again, I think it’s super important for universities to adopt principles before issues arise. People – and institutions – think more clearly when things are calm, and the factual context of individual cases can muddy the waters. Thus, setting out one’s beliefs in a non-emergency situation can lead to better thought-out principles. Additionally, these principles can be utilized to think through issues if they ever do emerge. It’s the same reason why religious people don’t just read their holy texts during times of strife, or why parents start to teach their children virtues when they’re very young – having principles serves as a sort of ethical compass that can help universities navigate free speech “emergencies” when they do occur. Making this statement gave the faculty the chance to stand up for free speech in an unequivocal way, on their own accord.

Mary: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

Lindsie: It’s always important to emphasize that free speech isn’t a partisan issue, and it isn’t about identity politics. Those of us who live and breathe campus free expression know that censorship sees no political affiliation; it affects the right, the left, and those of all other political persuasions. However, a lot of people mistakenly believe free speech is a right-wing issue that may harm historically marginalized voices. Questions along those lines arose as the working group and faculty council worked to institute the UNC statement. But free speech is for everyone: those on the right, those on the left, the privileged, the marginalized. In fact, I would argue that free speech – just like other civil rights – is designed to benefit the powerless more than the powerful. I hope people see the UNC principles as written not to affirm a commitment to protect the rights of a single political or identity group, but instead as designed to affirm a commitment to protect all voices.

Interested in adopting a free speech statement on your campus? Contact us and pledge your support today!

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