Commentaries
Defense of free expression and inquiry at UNC-CH not thorough enough

Moeser misses some opportunities

By Jon Sanders

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February 21, 2003

"I have been proud," announced Chancellor James Moeser of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in his "State of the University" speech this past September, "to speak for the entire community in defending our fundamental rights as Americans from any who would seek to limit the scope of free expression and inquiry. In the past 12 months, UNC has shown the world what it is to be a great, free, American public university."

Certainly UNC-CH has defended free expression and inquiry in several well-known instances -- most visibly this past summer, when it prevailed in defending its assignment of Approaching the Q'uran against the charge that the assignment (originally a requirement, later removed) amounted to state sponsorship of a religion. In 2001 Moeser defended the faculty's right to speak out against the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda. He also defended The Daily Tar Heel's decision to publish a controversial op-ed by David Horowitz.
But how vigorous is UNC-CH's defense of free expression and inquiry?

This semester a contract professor of social work at UNC-CH abruptly quit after graduate students complained of her making racial comments. According to the Chapel Hill Herald of Feb. 8, Martha Lamb had told her class, "Social Work and Practice with Couples," that in the 1960s some people used to say the NAACP stood for "Niggers Ain't Acting Like Colored People," but that those remarks aren't commonplace today. Lamb also reportedly told of supervisors who said couples therapy doesn't work for black couples. About half her students dropped the class.

Social Work Dean Jack Richman told the Herald that Lamb had "used some insensitive, hurtful, disparaging words" and that students "got so uncomfortable they couldn't [understand] anything past the statement." Richman said Lamb is "extremely remorseful" and that "she never meant to hurt anybody. She was trying to give historical context to her experience." But it didn't matter if "she was trying to do something pedagogical that went awry," Richman told the Herald, which reported that he "stress[ed] that the university's racial harassment policy requires instructors to provide a comfortable learning environment."

It's hard to reconcile Lamb's experience with Moeser's boast of UNC-CH defending against those who would "limit the scope of free expression and inquiry." Nor could one reconcile some students' experiences with those concepts.

One student (all wish to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons) told of participating in a mandatory online discussion board as part of a Political Science class. At issue was a Miami anti-discrimination law giving special protection to homosexuals, which critics were trying to repeal because they thought it was unconstitutional. The student replied with agreement with the critics, saying that the government should not advocate a homosexual lifestyle, nor convey that it is normal, which the student argued was being done with the guarantee of special rights for homosexuals.

The board moderator removed the student's post, telling the student to "be mindful of the fact that many of your classmates are members of these groups" and said any such message "will be removed immediately, as they add little to the discussion." Course requirements mandated that the student participate in the discussion, but the student was not allowed to state his personal beliefs and opinions in the discussion.

Students have also told of classes in which professors assign "research" papers but make explicit exactly which sources they are allowed to consult. For example, in one assignment, the professor's instructions on how the paper is to be structured explains: "To provide this general analysis, you should draw on other readings in the course, your discussions in your sections, as well as the [New York] Times' articles. (You should not engage in extensive additional research beyond this.) And, second, your paper must contain specific illustrations of your general points. These specific illustrations should be drawn directly from the stories that you have clipped from the Times."

While those do not suggest that such limiting of inquiry is normal at UNC-CH, they do indicate that it isn't unusual.

Another event casting doubt on UNC-CH's self-lauded support of free speech and inquiry without limits is the recent threat of derecognitionand defunding made by Jonathan E. Curtis, UNC-CH's assistant director for student activities and organizations, to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other religious, primarily Christian, organizations on campus. The group's charter required its officers to "submit in writing and without reservation to ... Christian doctrine," which Curtis explained is counter to UNC-CH's nondiscrimination clause requiring student organizations to be open "to full membership and participation ... without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender."

In other words, because the groups' paths of inquiry (not to mention its speech and assembly preferences) differed from the official campus line, the university threatened to cut off its university funding.

Now, in fairness to the university and in keeping with other high-profile speech- and inquiry-related events, Moeser did issue a statement directing that "IVCF be allowed to continue to operate as an official recognized student organization."

He also said, however, that "[a]t issue here is the law, which requires that charters of officially recognized student groups at public universities not exclude persons from membership and full participation based on race, gender or religious belief" and that "This is not a simple matter. While the University continues to seek to ensure that our facilities and resources are not used in any way that fosters illegal discrimination, we also wish to uphold the principles of freedom of expression."

But why wasn't it a "simple matter"? As Alan Charles Kors, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (which worked with IVCF on the issue), asked, "What is there in the administrative culture of UNC[-CH] -- and what is there in the political and cultural climate at UNC[-CH] -- that the First Amendment could be trashed by an administrator who, under the guise of preventing religious discrimination, could rule out the ability of Christian organizations to be Christian?"

Moeser's vision of a UNC-CH "defending our fundamental rights as Americans from any who would seek to limit the scope of free expression and inquiry" is laudable and desirable. But it's still not a reality -- certainly not in the sense of permeating the entire university culture.

 


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