Last month, when former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka made an appearance at UNC-Chapel Hill, protesters gathered outside, chanting, "Fascist scum has got to go." According to news reports, the chants at times could be heard inside.
Under a new policy adopted by the UNC Board of Governors last week, those protesters could have faced warnings, suspensions, or even expulsion had their chants substantially disrupted Gorka's ability to give his talk on U.S.-Israel relations.
Effective immediately, the policy applies to all seventeen campuses in the UNC system and was required by a state law passed earlier this year.
Across the country, legislatures have passed laws requiring campus free-speech policies. Many, including North Carolina's, are patterned after a model put forth by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, in response to the proliferation of campus "safe zones" and protests against speakers like Gorka.
The policy calls for UNC schools to "implement and enforce a range of disciplinary sanctions, up to and including dismissal or expulsion, for anyone ... who materially and substantially disrupts the functioning of UNC General Administration, constituent institution or any other entity or unit of the university, or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others."
The board of governors consulted the Association of Student Governments, the Staff Assembly, and the Faculty Assembly in crafting the policy. The final policy, passed by the full board Friday without discussion, does not differ substantially from one approved by a board committee last month.
"We're not going to see anything that causes major heartburn on campuses," predicted UNC system president Margaret Spellings.
But the ACLU of North Carolina is worried that the definition of what is considered a "disruption" is too broad and that potential sanctions are too harsh.
"The UNC Board of Governors passed a new policy about campus speech. They ignored our recommendations and the hundreds of people who spoke out against this policy. Now it could chill free speech on campuses across the state," the organization posted on Facebook after the vote.
The policy lays out minimum punishments for repeat offenders but says individual campuses can impose different sanctions if warranted. The policy suggests at least suspension for a second offense and expulsion for a third offense. Guests on campus who violate the policy can be barred from campus, and people who disrupt public meetings may be banned from meetings or campus or face criminal charges.
The definition of what constitutes a disruption is broad, including anything that would be considered a disruption or disorderly conduct under state law.
"We don't usually have substantial disruptions," said board member Steven Long, who chairs the University Governance Committee. "We're not talking about small things. We're talking about material and substantial disruptions where basically someone is really intending to block proceedings or someone from being heard."
The North Carolina chapter of the Association of American University Professors also came out against the policy. An AAUP petition opposing it had garnered 460 signatures by Monday afternoon.
In addition to the possibility of chilling free speech, the AAUP points out that the policy suggests UNC schools should be neutral on public issues ("Constituent institutions may not take action on public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students, faculty or administrators to publicly express a given view of social policy") and that state law calls for a Committee on Free Expression, made up of BOG members, to report annually on "disruptions of free expression" and any resulting disciplinary action.
The UNC Faculty Assembly had also voiced concerns during the drafting of the policy. The group advocated that individual schools be able to determine sanctions.
Gabriel Lugo, who chairs the UNC Faculty Assembly, said after Friday's meeting that while the group understands that the board of governors had to pass the policy, the First Amendment already "completely satisfies" the need to protect free speech. He said the group is pleased campuses will be able to determine sanctions locally but argues that the policy goes unnecessarily beyond what was required by the law, which makes no mention of specific sanctions.
Whether that will be felt by faculty members depends on how UNC schools implement the policy and determine what constitutes a disruption, he said.
The move comes amid protests at campuses nationwide, including at UNC-Chapel Hill, where students and faculty are renewing decades-old calls for the removal of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. Protesters have been known to disrupt board of governors meetings, and last year four demonstrators were arrested while calling for Spellings's firing.
It also comes during a perceived power struggle between the largely Republican board of governors and the more liberal Chapel Hill campus.
About three months ago, the board of governors barred UNC-Chapel Hill's progressive Center for Civil Rights from litigating, causing (you guessed it) protests. Two years ago, the board closed the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Last month, there was talk of moving the system's general administration away from Chapel Hill because its current location conflates the two.
But more recently, the board has shown interest in opening a more conservative center at the Chapel Hill campus. Officials this fall toured Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and heard from its director, professor Robert P. George (whom The New York Times once called the "reigning brain of the Christian right") about civil discourse during their meeting Friday. George describes the program not as conservative but as a conduit for differing viewpoints to engage in meaningful debate. UNC officials on Friday asked how they could apply the model in a larger, public university setting.
"Our faculty are finding it tougher to introduce uncomfortable ideas in the classroom," Spellings told The News & Observer, "and our policymakers are finding it harder to see the kind of intellectual diversity our institutions promise."