UNC: ‘Let’s talk about freedom of speech’

February 27, 2017

Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill aren’t waiting for the next free speech controversy to start stirring on their campus. Instead, they’ve opted for a common sense appeal to students, faculty, and staff:

Let’s talk” about it. Now.

On Thursday, the university dedicated an edition of its lecture series, Carolina Conversations, to free speech on campus.

The series, which launched last year according to the university’s news page, is an “effort to engage students, faculty and staff in dialogue around issues of equity and inclusion related to race, intellectual diversity, religion, identity and culture,” and to “ensure that Carolina remains an inclusive and welcoming campus for all.”

UNC Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Mark Merritt, who led the informational session, told the audience why it’s so important to keep talking.

“‘The theory under the First Amendment – and the courts have said this repeatedly – is the antidote to that kind of speech is more speech. It’s educating people. It’s understanding what motivates them to say that,’ Merritt said. ‘It takes time and good speech to overcome the attitudes that are embedded in bad speech.’”

Merritt explained how current laws can be used to address instances of harassment, threats of violence, or other illegal behavior on campus, without the university or campus community members needing to resort to censorship.

He cited the university’s swift condemnation of “Bash the Fash” fliers recently posted on campus that encouraged violence against Donald Trump supporters, explaining again that bad speech should be met with counter-speech, rather than the encouragement of violence.

Interim Chief Diversity Officer Rumay Alexander was also on hand at Thursday’s event to remind the audience they could broach any concerns with her office.

As one of just 29 institutions earning FIRE’s highest “green light” rating for speech-friendly policies, it’s deeply encouraging that UNC is opting to educate on these important issues.  

It’s also highly practical.

At FIRE, we too often see universities in a tough position: considering how to react to free speech crises only after they’ve already occurred. Once a controversy has blossomed on campus, administrators frequently find themselves faced with uncomfortable questions: “Has someone at our university violated the First Amendment?” (Or, on private campuses: “Has someone violated our own commitments to free speech?”) “Is the campus community in an uproar?” “How do we fix it?”

This late in the game, options are usually limited. By responding reactively instead of proactively building a culture of free speech, a university is more likely to be vulnerable to internal discord, public embarrassment, or even legal action.

UNC’s proactive approach is one other colleges and universities could emulate to everyone’s benefit. Empowering open dialogue and debate on campus through education is a win-win for all involved, encouraging reasoned debate that can stave off angry confrontations before they start. Such debate also aligns with public universities’ First Amendment obligations, and UNC’s own mission statement, which mirrors similar such statements on campuses nationwide: “to discover, create, transmit, and apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society.”