UNC cracks down on disruptions with new free speech policy

The Faculty Assembly, however, complained that the policy goes beyond the bare minimum required under state law with regard to punishing those who disrupt free speech on campus.

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors passed a systemwide free speech policy Friday in response to demands from lawmakers that it take steps to curb the “heckler’s veto.”

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors passed a systemwide free speech policy Friday in response to demands from lawmakers that it take steps to curb the “heckler’s veto.”

The North Carolina General Assembly passed the “Campus Free Speech Act” in July, which requires the Board of Governors to develop and adopt a policy on free speech and free expression that guarantees “the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression” on campus, including sanctions for any student or employee who “substantially disrupts” the free speech of others.

[RELATED: NC passes first Goldwater-based free speech law]

“It is not the proper role of any constituent institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the policy states.

Under the new policy, all universities within the system are obligated to allow unfettered free speech, as long as the expression “is lawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the constituent institution.”

A “substantial disruption” is defined by the policy as any action treated under state law as disorderly conduct, disruption, violation of a chancellor’s designation of a curfew period, or trespassing, as well as “protests and demonstrations that materially infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity when the expressive activity.”

First-time violations will result in disciplinary sanctions according to the university’s discretion, but a second violation carries an automatic suspension and a third violation results in expulsion, although in both of the latter two cases “the institution may impose a different sanction if warranted.”

[RELATED: Anti-conservative vandalism prompts free speech bill at UT]

Some faculty members, however, contend that the new policy goes beyond what is required under state law, and sought to have certain provisions revised or removed.

The UNC Faculty Assembly wrote a letter to the UNC Board of Governors in October arguing that the policy was “not specific enough to provide fairness and clarity about what behavior will be deemed excessive,” particular with respect to its reliance on criminal statutes to determine what counts as “substantial disruption.”

The Chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly, Gabriel Lugo, told Campus Reform that the Faculty Assembly disagrees with a criminal statue being used to define a “material and substantial disruption,” pointing out that “All will agree that [North Carolina General Statute 14] is a criminal statute, and violations thereof should be prosecuted by criminal law.”

[RELATED: State Rep reminds students that ‘speech is not violence’]

On the other hand, Will Rierson, president of the College Republicans at UNC-Chapel Hill, told Campus Reform that he is pleased with the passing of this policy.

“The University of North Carolina system is leading the nation in preserving free speech on campus,” said Rierson. “Most of us want to avoid the disasters that have befallen the University of California system and other schools.”

Rierson is particularly supportive of the policy’s efforts to end the “heckler’s veto,” which he described as a counterproductive form of protest.

“Students have no right to ‘shut down’ campus speakers beyond their ability to invite or disinvite speakers with whom they have a working relationship,” he argued. “The current means of protest preferred by most students at our schools is to stage counter-events and boycott controversial speakers. That strategy is not good for their own personal educations, but at least it allows their peers to learn from the speakers.”

Disclaimer: Will Rierson was previously an intern at Campus Reform.

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