Activism

How a 'Campus Free Expression Act' in North Carolina Actually Aims to Suppress Student Speech

Conservative UNC leadership tries to stifle campus activism. Protests turned violent in clashes between students and police officers.

AUSTIN, APRIL 10 -- Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Center and former Secretary of Education, and U.S. Representative George Miller discuss the state of education today with Bob Schieffer, CBS News journalist. Photo by Lauren Gerson.
Photo Credit: Lauren Gerson / LBJ Foundation / Flickr

News came on March 7 that North Carolina’s Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest will propose the deceivingly named Campus Free Expression Act at the state legislature next month. The act instructs the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors to craft a systemwide policy that would impose harsh penalties, including expulsion, on students, staff and faculty members who disrupt classes, public meetings or events.

This proposal appears to be a reaction to recent student protests at UNC Board of Governors meetings over forced closings of academic centers and the recent appointment of for-profit education proponent Margaret Spellings as the university system president.

The act also charges the Board of Governors to establish a “Committee of Free Speech” that would produce an annual report and commit the university system to remain neutral on social and political issues.

Conservative media including the Carolina Journal and the Koch-funded Generation Opportunity have extolled the proposal on the basis of alleged free speech protections. But is the bill protecting everyone’s speech?

The 32-member UNC Board of Governors, appointed by the GOP-led state legislature and Republican governor, faced scrutiny last year after voting to shutter three campus centers unpopular with conservatives: a poverty center at UNC-Chapel Hill, a biodiversity center at East Carolina University and a civic engagement institute at the historically black North Carolina Central University.

Next, the board ousted popular system president Tom Ross without explanation and replaced him with the controversial Spellings, while inflating her salary. Conservative politicians cheered the exit of Ross, a Democrat, whose successor was an education secretary under George W. Bush who then served on the boards of a student loan collection agency and the parent company of for-profit education chain University of Phoenix.

Students from UNC-Chapel Hill and other campuses have asked for student, faculty and staff representation on the board to no avail. One student serves as an honorary member with no voting privileges, and faculty and staff have no seats. The students wanted a role in hiring the next system president, but their requests were ignored by the board members, who are often political donors and mostly Republicans.

UNC-Chapel Hill senior Shannon Brien, who is active with the Chapel Hill BOG Coalition, which, along with other groups, has led protests at board meetings, believes that “none of these people have any experience in education.”

“The board has no legitimacy in our eyes,” she said. “These political appointees aren’t really accountable to students, faculty or staff, the real stakeholders in our education system. We are frustrated with their decisions, many of which are focused on turning the system into a private enterprise, a business model instead of a public institution.”

The coalition has advocated for the board to be “more transparent, democraticand accountable” by providing public comment sections and sufficient seating at meetings, giving the student representative voting privileges and requiring board members to conduct business using university email accounts, the absence of which has led to backlogged information requests surrounding the board’s presidential search controversy.

Four students were arrested in January after disrupting a Board of Governors meeting by taking absent members’ seats and chanting. The 40 police officers outnumbered the 25 protesters, and Brien said police grabbed one woman, forcing her to lie facedown in the hallway, with one officer’s shoe on her back. Another woman was arrested for simply trying to see what was happening to her friend, Brien said.

The Board of Governors has created new rules for their meetings, which include removal and possible arrest of anyone disrupting the gatherings. But the board did concede to protestors’ demands somewhat, pledging to stream the meetings online and provide a public comment period.

Brien thinks the Board of Governors may have appealed to Forest for further help deterring the protests, and so Forest made plans to propose the Campus Free Expression Act.

The bill’s authors want to protect speakers in classrooms, at university functions and at events such as Board of Governors meetings, at the expense of others’ right to protest.

In a written statement, Forest’s press secretary Jamey Falkenbury referred to the infringement of free expression rights of students, professors and speakers through intimidation or interruption, making no mention of administrative events such as Board of Governors meetings.

But Brien hasn’t heard of professors being interrupted at UNC. “I would like to hear what they’re talking about,” she said.

“You hear of isolated incidents where speakers invited to campus are heckled, but I don’t think this is a widespread phenomenon,” said UNC-Chapel Hill law professor and First Amendment scholar William Marshall.

The regulations that the bill tasks the Board of Governors to create may in fact violate free speech, the very right it purports to protect.

If the board imposes sanctions on people speaking out at its meetings, it would “ignore the right of people to protest,” said Marshall. “Our tradition of speech allows counterspeech, and we also allow counterdemonstrations. This bill would ignore the counterspeech part of the speech equation.”

But Forest has another idea of the First Amendment. “Getting up in somebody’s face and screaming and yelling at them so they can’t talk is not free speech. It never has been free speech,” he told radio host KC O’Dea.

Later in the interview, Forest referred to protest methods on campuses around the country as “terrorist tactics.”

In a similar situation to UNC’s, graduate teaching assistants at Florida State University were threatened with code violations when attending presidential search committee meetings in 2014. Protests ensued over both the selection process and a candidate, now FSU president John Thrasher, who is linked to the billionaire Koch brothers and has received accolades from conservative bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council. Administrators verbally threatened the students with these violations, which would strip the graduate students of their teaching assistant jobs, therefore ending their tuition waivers and stipends, according to a leader of the protests and PhD student in English literature whose full legal name is Lakey. She said their original group of 40 to 50 graduate student activists quickly diminished to just three or four after these threats.

The attempts to stifle speech in North Carolina and Florida come after many other universities have limited the free speech of their community members. “Free speech zones” — another dishonest term that refers to designated areas, usually far away from an event that a protest might target, where people may protest without penalty — exist at numerous schools, though some have been successfully contested on First Amendment grounds. Laws in Missouri and Virginia now ban so-called free speech zones at public colleges and universities.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which tracks campus free speech nationally, four UNC system schools had free speech zones as of September 2013. The North Carolina bill would make free expression on campus “subject to reasonable time, place and manner regulations by the university,” according to Falkenbury, perhaps foreshadowing more free speech zones.

The greater campus free speech debate has been raging in recent years, from the infamous pepper spraying of Occupy Wall Street activists at the University of California at Davis to the suspension and potential dismissal of a college professor for wearing a hijab and expressing solidarity with Muslims to a proposed ban on “anti-Zionism” at the University of California.

In North Carolina, whether or not Forest’s bill becomes law and the Board of Governors establishes harsh penalties on demonstrators, Brien said she and others won’t halt their protests. In addition, they’re “excited to be welcoming Spellings to all UNC campuses,” as the new president is making her rounds after having taken office March 1.

It may not be the warmest welcome, however: The students will continue asking her to resign.  

Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkotch.
 
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