Fifteen of the 16 University of North Carolina system campuses fall short on free-speech protections, a prominent civil-liberties group says. But a new bill, championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, may go far toward honoring students’ First Amendment rights.
House Bill 527, “Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech,” is designed to maintain freedoms and bolster speech protections across the UNC system, said Steven Walker, Forest’s general counsel and policy adviser.
“As far as the principles of free speech, we’re really not breaking any new ground as to what First Amendment law has been,” Walker told Carolina Journal. “We’re just making sure that things are in place to make sure that we’re following that law properly.”
UNC schools currently operate under separate speech codes, with no overlapping policies. No particular cases of censorship or speech violations triggered the drafting of H.B. 527, Walker said, but a recent study of UNC’s campus codes helped to push the legislation forward.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan research and litigation organization, in 2016 rated 449 public and private higher-ed institutions nationwide in three categories: red light, yellow light, and green light. Red- and yellow-light schools enforce unconstitutional policies that violate or abuse open speech. Green-light schools uphold First Amendment rights.
Only one UNC campus, Chapel Hill, ranked as a green-light school. Eleven others were ranked yellow, and the remaining four were designated red.
North Carolina State University in Raleigh, which has a yellow ranking, last year overhauled some of its rules after an evangelical campus group sued over free speech violations.
The plaintiff, Grace Christian Life, filed a lawsuit against the university after group members were told they needed a permit to talk about religion with students while handing out flyers on campus.
N.C. State settled in July 2016, paying the plaintiff’s legal fees and discontinuing the school’s permit policy for non-commercial solicitation on campus.
It’s this type of situation that would be preventable under H.B. 527, Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE, told CJ.
“One hopes that with the passage of this law in some form, or something like it, we see those policies reformed ahead of time by universities so they don’t have to be sued to fulfill their obligations,” he said.
“The sticking point with free speech is that everyone agrees that free speech is important for themselves, but not necessarily for their opponents, which is why it needs to be enforced in a principled fashion. Whether it’s through laws like this, or through policies on the campus or system level, the option to censor speech can’t be there — or somebody is going to use it,” Shibley added.