UNC Passes System-Wide “Free Speech” Policy | News

UNC Passes System-Wide “Free Speech” Policy

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The UNC Board of Governors approved a free speech policy for its seventeen campuses today amid concerns from faculty and civil rights advocates.

Effective immediately, the policy outlines how UNC schools may punish a student or faculty member who “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.”

Individual campuses are empowered to implement sanctions “up to and including dismissal or expulsion." The policy lays out minimum punishments for repeat offenders but says schools can impose different sanctions if warranted. The policy suggests at least suspension for a second offense and expulsion for a third offense.

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."

Approved by the full board without discussion, the policy does not differ substantially from one approved by a board committee last month. It adds language related to disruptions at general administration buildings.

"We're not going to see anything that causes major heartburn on campuses," predicted UNC system President Margaret Spellings.

The UNC system was required to adopt the policy by a state law passed this summer and patterned after a proposal from the conservative Goldwater Institute that has led to similar laws in other states.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the North Carolina chapter of the Association of American University Professors have come out against the policy. An AAUP petition opposing it had garnered nearly 450 signatures by Friday evening.

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, chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly, said after the 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 individual campuses will be able to determine sanctions locally but argues that the policy passed Friday unnecessarily went beyond what was required by state law. Whether that will be felt by faculty depends on how UNC schools implement the policy and determine what constitutes a disruption, he said.

The Board of Governors took input from the Association of Student Governments, the Staff Assembly, and the Faculty Assembly.

The ACLU of NC, which had called for a narrower definition of "disruption" and less severe consequences for violating the policy, said the approved version doesn't address its concerns. 

The move comes amid protests at UNC-Chapel Hill, where students and faculty are renewing decades-old calls for the removal of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam, and after the Board of Governors barred UNC-Chapel Hill's progressive Center for Civil Rights from litigating. The Board of Governors 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 Institution and heard from its director, Princeton professor Robert P. George, about civil discourse during their meeting today.

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