In Troubled Times, Some Important Advances to Protect Student Rights

In the last few years, the rights of students in North Carolina universities have received some significant new protections. It is important that state legislators and educators continue to do so, for such rights—pertaining to free speech and due process of punitive proceedings—have been under assault on college campuses nationwide in recent years. 

Just a few recent examples of the infringement of free speech include actions such as “disinviting” a speaker (Brandeis University); firing a female professor for jokes that were deemed “sexual harassment” (Louisiana State University); and limiting free speech to tiny campus zones, with registration ten days beforehand required (University of Cincinnati). This year has been especially contentious, with student activists finding all kinds of new and bizarre reasons—such as microagressions, “safe spaces,” and trigger warnings—to limit the constitutionally protected speech of others. 

Fortunately, some officials in North Carolina have demonstrated the sense to defend free expression. One of the more notable steps was at UNC-Chapel Hill, a school that has long prided itself on its free speech traditions. In the 1960s, student pressure at Chapel Hill forced the end of the state’s “Speaker Ban Law” that prevented known communists from speaking on public campuses.   

Over time, however, free speech standards on the Chapel Hill campus started to decline. But in April of 2014, the administration began working with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech advocacy non-profit organization, to address overly restrictive rules. The school then had two “yellow light” speech codes (FIRE rates free speech regulations on campuses using traffic light colors, with red the worst and green the best. See sidebar). 

UNC-CH revised the first, which limited distribution of student flyers in residence halls. The university then eliminated its ban on speech that “disparages” another person.

As a sign that it is no longer inhibiting free speech, FIRE changed Chapel Hill’s rating from yellow to green, meaning that it has sufficiently high free speech standards. UNC-Chapel Hill became the only “green light” school in North Carolina and the 21st in FIRE’s national database. 

Elsewhere in the UNC system, Winston-Salem State’s faculty recently voted to adopt the Chicago Principles for free speech. The principles are found in a statement issued by the University of Chicago early this year. 

The “Chicago statement” is a response to the curtailment of free speech—not only guaranteed by the Bill of Rights but also the hallmark of a marketplace of ideas—on many campuses, public and private.

The statement affirms, among other things, that a free university: 

is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed…. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe…the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

So far, no school in the UNC system has fully adopted the Chicago Principles.

The North Carolina General Assembly has also taken steps to protect free speech and due process on North Carolina campuses.

Until recently, a lack of clear policies on the First Amendment rights of student groups opened these groups to possible legal woes for attempting to carry out their legitimate missions. In 2003, for example, UNC-Chapel Hill attempted to prevent a Christian fraternity from choosing members based on belief—but was stopped by a federal judge’s injunction.

More recently, there was a controversy over whether the UNC-Chapel Hill a capella singing group Psalm 100 could expel from its membership an openly gay student, as part of its Christian mission include belief that homosexuality is a sin. In this case, the administration permitted the group to do so.

Both the North Carolina General Assembly and the UNC Board of Governors moved to clarify the problem once and for all last year. Both bodies voted to protect the rights of religious student groups by allowing them to restrict a group’s leadership to those students who agree with the group’s faith or mission.

The UNC Board of Governors approved a policy protecting student groups at all 16 UNC institutions. Almost simultaneously, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 719, sponsored by Senator Dan Soucek, which codified those protections in North Carolina law.

Following a controversy at UNC-Wilmington, state legislators passed the Student and Administration Equality (SAE) Act, which allows UNC system students to hire lawyers when they face misconduct charges on campus. The specific incident arose from a fraternity having its charter revoked based on allegations of underage drinking and hazing, even though police had been to the fraternity on the night in question and found no evidence of illegal acts. Despite the lack of evidence, and despite the fraternity members having little ability to defend themselves, the UNC-Wilmington administration kicked the fraternity out of the school. 

Because of the SAE law, a student who is charged with a serious offense can now have an attorney or “non-attorney advocate” in student conduct matters. The law doesn’t apply to academic misconduct cases or if students choose to have their case heard by a student-led conduct board.

These changes represent important progress in North Carolina. But there is a long way to go. Eliminating speech codes at the remaining 15 universities and adopting the Chicago principles system-wide are the logical next steps to protect students’ rights.