UNC students threaten federal lawsuit over Confederate statue

Students are threatening to sue the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if it does not remove a Confederate statue from campus.

According to The Daily Tar Heel, an attorney from the New York law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner—known for representing Vice President Al Gore in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case—made the threat Wednesday in a letter sent to Chancellor Carol Folt, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, UNC President Margaret Spellings, and the UNC Board of Governors on behalf of the UNC Black Law Students Association (BLSA), its faculty advisor Erika Wilson, and 12 other student leaders.

The letter demands that UNC “immediately remove the monument of an armed Confederate soldier, known as Silent Sam, from the middle of campus,” arguing that it “violates federal anti-discrimination laws by fostering a racially hostile learning environment.”

[RELATED: Police predict UNC students may tear down Confederate statue]

Silent Sam, a 1913 memorial to Confederate UNC alumni, “holds a rifle,” but “is silent because he wears no cartridge box for ammunition.” The statue has long been the subject of controversy, and past vandalism has cost UNC “more than $40,000,” according to a spokesperson for the school.

Calls for UNC to remove Silent Sam intensified following the violence in Charlottesville, but state law requires approval from the North Carolina Historical Commission before removing, relocating, or altering “a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State.”

In an effort to live up to that obligation, UNC installed fences and security cameras to protect the statue in advance of a large demonstration in August.

[RELATED: Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill vandalized]

Nonetheless, the letter sent on behalf of UNC students Thursday contends that the university is actually violating federal law by keeping Silent Sam in place.

“Silent Sam should go for many reasons including its incompatibility with the ‘inclusive and welcoming environment’ promised by UNC’s non-discrimination policy,” the letter begins, though it goes on to say that there is “an additional reason why Silent Sam must come down now: the statue violates federal anti-discrimination laws by fostering a hostile learning environment.”

Specifically, the law firm claims that the statue violates the prohibitions against racial discrimination outlined in Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asserting that “any federally funded institution (such as UNC) that is deliberately indifferent to a racially hostile learning environment runs afoul of federal law.”

According to the letter, Title VI defines “a hostile learning environment” as “harassing conduct,” including “graphic” content, that is “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from” university services.

This applies to Silent Sam, the letter argues, because the statue’s 1913 dedication featured a virulently racist speech, and it “remains a rallying cry” for “white supremacists.”

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“UNC’s decision to disobey federal law by allowing the racial animus perpetuated by Silent Sam to continue constitutes grounds for legal action,” the letter states, describing UNC’s inaction as a failure “to take steps to remove or stop the source of a racially hostile learning environment.”

Addressing the conflict with state law, it points out that “UNC’s overriding obligation” is to “comply with federal anti-discrimination laws,” pointing out that the preeminence of federal over state laws is “a core principle of the United States Constitution” [emphasis in original].

According to the Tar Heel, Vice Chancellor of University Communications Joel Curran responded to the letter Wednesday night with a statement expressing sympathy for the “emotions” behind the complaint, but also obliquely rejecting the letter’s legal arguments.

“We have received the letter and understand that for many people the Confederate monument’s presence can engender strong emotions, and we are respectful of those emotions,” Curran said. “While we do not have the unilateral legal authority to move the monument, these students have raised questions about federal civil rights law that will need to be addressed, and we will work with our Board of Trustees and Board of Governors to do so.

“In the meantime, the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History is developing an interpretive plan for McCorkle Place that will include signage presenting historical context of how the monument was erected as part of a broader effort to tell the honest and accurate history of the University,” the statement concluded.

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