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Perennial Controversy over NC State Free Expression Tunnel Inspires Problematic Tactic by Admins

According to a report by Campus Reform’s Kaitlyn Schallhorn posted last week, a North Carolina State University administrator emailed students to encourage them to cover up offensive speech painted in the university’s Free Expression Tunnel.

Students are (supposedly) welcomed by the university to use the Tunnel to express themselves openly on a range of topics, from current events to birthday messages and event details. In past years, students and administrators have disapproved of, and attempted to monitor or even censor, expression deemed to be “hate speech.” As FIRE has explained before, administrators at NC State, a public university bound by the First Amendment, should leave students to their own devices so long as their speech doesn’t fall into one of the few, narrowly-defined categories of unprotected speech, like true threats or obscenity. The vast majority of what people might consider “hate speech” is nonetheless constitutionally protected.

Yet, once again, the administration is attempting to defeat the purpose of the Tunnel by encouraging students to do what it legally cannot do itself—censor messages of which they disapprove. Schallhorn relayed remarks from NC State Director of Student Involvement Eileen M. Coombes, who asked students to fight against “social injustices and other forms of hate”:

“One way to do so is through the new ‘State not Hate’ stencils now available in Student Involvement,” Coombes said in her email. “If you see hate speech or offensive language in the Free Expression Tunnel, cover that speech with the stencil, indicating that you, as a member of this community of scholars, will not stand for any form of hate at NC State.”

Coombes later clarified to Campus Reform that she simply wanted “students to feel empowered”—“the stencil is just another method we've provided to combat speech with another form of expression.”

Let’s not be fooled. For a university to encourage someone to cover up someone else’s writing may provide some constitutional cover, but it isn’t just “another form of expression”—it’s clear what NC State is asking students to do, and what it expects from them. It’s probably not even the most effective way to combat speech NC State doesn’t like; Coombes could have just as easily encouraged students to place the stencil alongside offensive language so that viewers could see what their peers (or NC State administrators) find objectionable. Students have previously combated prejudice by focusing on creating positive messages in the Tunnel without the same emphasis on targeting specific messages for censorship. The messages are somewhat ephemeral either way, but something cannot be called a “Free Expression Tunnel” if certain viewpoints are systematically eliminated at the “suggestion” of the university administration.

This isn’t the first time FIRE has seen a university administrator invite students to play the role of censor. In 2005, Washington State University went as far as paying for and training students to disrupt another student’s satirical theater production called “Passion of the Musical.” Regardless of the forum for expression or the method of censorship, universities have an obligation not to simply turn to students to do their dirty work.

Of course, if the NC State administration does take up the role of censor itself and start painting over particular viewpoints in the Tunnel, or if it takes any punitive action against those who paint messages deemed to be hateful or offensive, FIRE stands ready to help the affected students—just email us at

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