WATKINS: NC Public Universities Aren’t Preparing Students Well on Free Speech

RALEIGH – The state motto of North Carolina is ‘Esse Quam Videri,’ a Latin phrase meaning, ‘To Be, rather than to Seem.’ This essence of integrity, with respect to the core principles of liberty, was embodied at the outset when North Carolina stood firm, and nearly alone, in refusing to ratify the Constitution unless a Bill of Rights were included.

Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the public university system in North Carolina is utterly failing students on the most prominent of those Rights – the right to free speech. That’s according to Shannon Watkins, senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, who makes the case that the public universities of the Old North State are hardly living up to the state motto in preparing students on matters of free speech.

Watkins writes:

“About two years ago, I spoke to a class of UNC-Chapel Hill students about free speech: what it is and why it is important. I covered some basic points such as the kinds of speech the First Amendment does and does not protect. I also talked about the importance of respecting dissenting opinions, and how shutting down ideas is not the most effective way to get people to change their minds.

To my surprise, several students stated that they believed that it was their constitutional right to prevent someone else from speaking, if they disagreed with what was being said. I left that class realizing how little those students understood the First Amendment.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Although a 2019 survey by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that 68 percent of college students believe that free speech rights are  “extremely important” to democracy, findings from the same report suggest that many students have a shallow grasp of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, North Carolina has a law that helps address students’ misconceptions about the First Amendment. In the summer of 2017, the North Carolina legislature signed the North Carolina Campus Free Speech Act into law. The law contains important provisions that protect and affirm the importance of campus free speech. 

One of the provisions requires that the state’s public colleges discuss free expression during students’ freshman orientation. According to the law:

All constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina shall include in freshman orientation programs a section describing the policies regarding free expression consistent with this Article.

How well are the schools carrying out their duty? To find out, the Martin Center requested digital copies of all free speech materials used during freshman orientations from all UNC system institutions. 

Unfortunately, many of the schools’ free speech sections are rather bleak. Rather than providing students with substantial information and guidance, the following schools include a very brief nod to free speech:

    • UNC-Chapel Hill
    • UNC-Wilmington
    • UNC-Greensboro
    • UNC School of the Arts
    • Western Carolina

Perhaps the most egregious example is UNC-Chapel Hill—the state’s flagship university. Out of a presentation of 24 slides, only one meager slide states: […]


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