UNC Wilmington professor urges school to relax speech restrictions

A conservative professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington is urging administrators to eliminate policies restricting student speech before the school suffers public rebuke.

In an open letter to Chancellor Jose Sartarelli and the UNCW Board of Trustees, published Tuesday by Townhall,Prof. Mike Adams praises the UNC system’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill for earning a “green light” rating on free expression from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and warns that UNCW could see its own “yellow light” rating downgraded to a “red light” if it does not take steps to emulate Chapel Hill’s success.

FIRE releases an annual report cataloguing policies that potentially (or, in many cases, blatantly) violate the First Amendment at colleges and universities across the country, and also maintains an ongoing database of those ratings, with red lights indicating significant restrictions and yellow lights denoting potentially problematic or ambiguous policies.

[RELATED: REPORT: Nearly half of public colleges restrict student speech]

“It has been some time since FIRE has evaluated our school and I am concerned that the yellow light rating no longer provides an accurate assessment of the climate for free speech at UNC-Wilmington,” Adams warns in his letter. “In fact, I am concerned that if we don’t act affirmatively we will eventually be given a red light rating for having at least one policy that runs afoul of the First Amendment.”

According to Adams, “students at UNC-Wilmington have been prosecuted under two policies—the ‘disorderly conduct’ policy and the Seahawk Respect Compact—for offering criticism of the administration, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment.”

The Seahawk Respect Compact, which all members of the school community are expected to adhere to, endorses free expression, but only “within a climate of civility and mutual respect,” a goal the school hopes to accomplish “by eliminating prejudice and discrimination through education and interaction with others.”

The disorderly conduct policy, on the other hand, is problematic primarily due to its ambiguousness—conduct that is “verbally abusive of another” is a violation—which according to Majeed and Adams the university has exploited to punish students for voicing their complaints.

Adams does give Sartarelli credit for his handling of one such case shortly after he became Chancellor in July, saying he “acted quickly to overturn the charges against the student and promised to review the policy,” but urges him to go even further by implementing a three-step plan of action.

First, Adams wants UNCW to request an assessment of its policies from FIRE, which would then be able to work with the school on revisions to the problematic policies. Once the university has achieved a green light rating like UNC-CH, he offers temptingly, “we should actively promote ourselves as one of America’s leading free speech universities,” there being only 22 other institutions with the distinction.

Azhar Majeed, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, confirmed to Campus Reform that UNCW is indeed due for a checkup at some point this calendar year, having last been evaluated in September 2015, and also corroborated Adams’ charge that the school uses its speech codes to harass students who are critical of it.

“UNCW’s administration really has a history of not respecting speech rights—not only in policy, but in practice,” he told Campus Reform, clarifying that “they have a history of restricting student speech that is critical of the university.”

Majeed also heartily endorsed Adams’ suggestion that the school consult with FIRE to bring its policies into conformity with the First Amendment, observing that “they have their work cut out for them,” but that there was no reason to think UNCW could not follow in the footsteps of UNC-CH.

“What struck me upon reviewing UNCW’s spotlight rating was the sheer number of speech codes,” he said. “Usually, a school with a red or yellow light rating might have five or six restrictive policies, but UNCW has nine … it seems like anywhere the university could restrict student or faculty speech, they have a policy in place.”

Spokespersons for UNCW had not responded by press time to messages from Campus Reform seeking the university’s reaction to Adams’ letter. This article will be updated if and when they respond, though Majeed implied that they may be disinclined to do so, saying, “FIRE has written to them in the past, and they know full well that these policies don’t meet First Amendment standards.”

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