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The Problematic State of Free Speech at North Carolina Universities

There should be no place safer for free speech and academic freedom than a public university. After all, as state agents, they are legally—and morally—bound to respect their students’ constitutional rights.

So why have many of the public universities in my home state of North Carolina egregiously violated the rights of their students? Why does Duke University, the private institution I attend, uphold the values of “freedom of inquiry and the free exchange of ideas,” while many of its nearby public counterparts fail to do so despite identical obligations?

With the exception of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), there are no schools in North Carolina that have earned FIRE’s “green light” rating, meaning that a school’s written policies do not seriously imperil free speech. In fact, several institutions boast embarrassing “red light” ratings, meaning that they maintain at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. Unfortunately, this is not all that surprising: Public universities in North Carolina have a history of restricting speech on their campuses.

In a 2006 report, FIRE found that “13 out of the 16 schools in the UNC System have at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Policies highlighted included Appalachian State University’s ban on “insults, taunts, or challenges directed toward another person,” North Carolina Central University’s practice of outlawing “statements of intolerance,” and UNC Asheville’s requirement that all students “respect the dignity of all persons.” The purpose of this report was to draw attention to First Amendment violations within the University of North Carolina system. Yet, in the decade following, few schools have changed their policies and alarming occurrences of free speech suppression continue to be brought to light.

In 2011, a student newspaper advisor was fired after publishing a photo of a streaker at Eastern Carolina University (ECU) and students living in dorms at North Carolina State University (NCSU) were pressured to sign speech-chilling civility statements by resident assistants. In 2014, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) was the victim of multiple intrusive investigations and was denied full membership in the UNCW faculty for his religiously-based views. Just last year, NCSU made headlines again by attempting to censor anything deemed hate speech in its ironically-named Free Expression tunnel.

Although I want to believe that my home state understands the social and academic value of free speech, its public universities paint a different picture. Instead, speech-restrictive policies at many of these schools reflect not simply a misunderstanding of, but rather a disdain for, the First Amendment’s guarantees. Speech codes at institutions across the state give administrators the ability to trample the constitutional rights of students to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and press—the very principles that comprise the foundation of this country.

It is not enough to expect schools within the North Carolina system to fix themselves. This year alone, NCSU steadfastly defended an unconstitutional policy requiring student groups to obtain permission before distributing literature on campus—a policy that cost NCSU $72,500 in attorneys’ fees to settle. The instances of speech suppression in 2016 should serve as a warning signal for the current state of public education. Not only are unconstitutional practices persisting on public campuses in North Carolina, they are becoming more blatant and appalling.

With effort, universities can move past free speech debacles, and some in North Carolina have done so before in the past. For example, last summer, three police officers showed up to remove a protest poster that a UNC professor had placed on her window, an unnecessary and illiberal response to a professor’s expression. In the aftermath of the incident, UNC issued a statement apologizing for its reaction to the poster and allowed the poster to remain. Universities can remedy certain First Amendment violations by simply admitting their mistakes and re-examining their policies to ensure that such an incident does not occur again.

While I am particularly concerned about the state of public education in North Carolina, no public university should shy away from difficult or controversial conversations. After all, these conversations are what intellectual development is predicated on. I urge universities in my home state to adopt policies like the University of Chicago’s Free Speech Statement to effectively promote free speech and academic discourse on campus, and I encourage others to ask their state colleges to do the same. Universities should make all efforts possible to reform restrictive speech policies and learn from their past mistakes. If any state wishes to inspire real discourse and debate on campus, it must ensure that its institutions of higher education reflect the values outlined in the First Amendment.

Caroline Wang is a FIRE summer intern.

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