First in Free Speech: NC Colleges & Universities Ranked First in Campus Free Speech

RALEIGH – When North Carolinians think of our institutions of higher learning they likely think of premier college sports programs and, more recently, Leftist political activism. What we may take for granted, though, is the fact that college campuses in the Old North State are unmatched when it comes to free speech protections.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently ranked North Carolina’s campuses better than any other in the nation when it comes to protecting free speech. The ranking system FIRE employs consists of a red, yellow, and green light. Two universities, Western Carolina University and UNC Pembroke, were just upgraded to ‘green’ by FIRE after the schools clarified speech policies that were formerly vague.

“FIRE assigns schools a “red light” rating if they have policies that “clearly and substantially” restrict free speech, a “yellow light” rating if they feature policies that restrict a “limited amount” of protected speech, and a “green light” rating if the institution’s policies “do not seriously imperil speech.”

Western Carolina University previously had a “yellow light” because it threatened constitutionally protected speech within its demonstration, harassment, bullying, information technology use, and sexual harassment policies, according to FIRE.

Similarly, UNC-Pembroke had a “yellow light” rating for restrictions in its event, computer use regulation, and sexual misconduct policies, as well as in its student code of conduct.”

That brings North Carolina’s ‘green light’ schools to 10 – more than any other state in the nation. The other top rated institutions, according to FIRE, are:

  • Appalachian State University
  • Duke University
  • East Carolina University
  • North Carolina Central University
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro
  • University of North Carolina Wilmington

It’s not just the universities themselves that are intent upon protecting free speech on their campuses. In 2017, legislation protecting and codifying campus free speech was championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and passed by the General Assembly. House Bill 527 helps to protect the rights of student passing out literature in certain areas of campus, among other protections. (There had been several instances of conservative speech being actively discriminated against by barring individuals from passing out conservative literature.)

“As FIRE’s most recent “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report shows, roughly 1 in 10 colleges maintain problematic policies that restrict expression to certain areas on campus, oftentimes called “free speech zones.” These misleadingly labeled “free speech zones” are routinely struck down by courts because they unconstitutionally limit student expression to tiny, out of the way areas of campus. Statutorily prohibiting these zones will hopefully avoid the need for litigation over this issue in North Carolina.”

These so called ‘Safe Zones’ or ‘Free Speech Zones’ are anathema to the principles supporting free speech. The legislation also mandated sanctions for anyone that acted to suppress the free speech rights of others, or actively disrupt the functioning of the constituent institution.

The law also provided enough nuance as to allow discretion, an important feature according to FIRE:

“The language of this law is different from laws or bills in other states requiring specific mandatory minimum sanctions for students who materially disrupt the free expression of others. Instead, this law reminds institutions that they have an obligation to take action when people engage in conduct that silences their opponents on campus, while giving institutions the flexibility to evaluate each case in its individual context. This helps to ensure that those who shout down a campus speaker aren’t required to be treated the same as those who physically assault a speaker.

HB 527 also states that colleges and universities “may not take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students, faculty, or administrators to publicly express a given view of a social policy.” This language prevents institutions from taking positions on controversial issues in a way that forces others to conform to their view. For example, if an institution felt that marijuana should remain illegal, it could say so, and it could also require students to avoid its use on their campus. But the school could not force students, faculty, or administrators to publicly agree that marijuana should remain illegal. While institutions rarely overtly try to force constituent groups to take positions that conform to the school’s viewpoints, the problem is not unheard of. This law will prevent such an occurrence in North Carolina.”

This last point is an important one. We covered a story yesterday in which many faculty and staff of UNC Chapel Hill are threatening to withhold final grades from students as a form of protest, until their ‘demands’ are met regarding the controversial plan to relocate the ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate statue. The university’s provost was clear in warning faculty that this not only violated school rules and harmed students, it is against the law as well.

Free speech protections are needed for that speech which many might find objectionable. We may roll our eyes at the social justice warriors prevalent on our campuses, but their speech deserves protection. (Violent mob actions are not speech, however, is a different matter altogether) But when the faculty themselves use coercion to compel or curb speech, they should be punished accordingly.

Overall, though, North Carolinians should be proud of their top ranking in campus free speech. We should also recognize that without political leaders championing these principles, the Old North State may not enjoy these protections.

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