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UPDATE: UNC Chapel Hill’s clarification on DEI task force reignites FIRE’s First Amendment concerns

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In a recent turn of events, FIRE’s understanding of actions by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine regarding recommendations from a diversity, equity, and inclusion task force have come into question.

Last month, FIRE wrote the UNC School of Medicine about recommendations from a DEI task force report that, if implemented, would violate faculty members’ First Amendment rights. Following conversation and correspondence between FIRE and UNC counsel, we believed UNC rejected the task force recommendations, and we characterized its response as an example of how universities can successfully address rights violations when brought to their attention. 

Our initial response was based, in part, on a phone call with Senior University Counsel Kirsten Stevenson, who represented our First Amendment concerns were addressed. We cited a letter from Stevenson, who acknowledged,

[T]he UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine, Department of Health Sciences, Task Force to Integrate Social Justice into the Department of Health Sciences Curricula (“Task Force”) …  recommendations have not been operationalized and the Task Force has concluded its work. There is no plan to implement the Task Force’s recommendations now or in the future. Even if the recommendations were revisited in the future, further review and revision would be required.

Last week, FIRE sought clarification whether UNC, in its letter, meant to include both the School of Medicine’s task force report and the Department of Allied Health Sciences’ task force report — which independently condition faculty advancement on subscribing to DEI tenets. Contrary to FIRE’s understanding of our phone conversation with UNC, the Office of University Counsel responded that its letter relates only to the Department of Health Sciences’ task force –– not to the medical school at large.

Today, FIRE wrote UNC a second time, reiterating our commitment to ensuring this public university meets its binding legal obligation to respect faculty First Amendment rights. 

FIRE repeated that UNC must eliminate any subjective standard that would compel faculty to voice or demonstrate commitments to prescribed views on contested questions of politics or morality. To the extent UNC upholds its current DEI posture, FIRE will continue to advocate a First Amendment-compliant solution toward an environment of academic freedom and diversity of thought within the UNC system. 

Accordingly, we call on the School of Medicine to eliminate or revise its mandate.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).


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