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East Carolina faculty back university band members’ right to protest, N&O reports

1893_east_carolina_pirates-alternate-1999East Carolina University faculty are publicly backing students’ right to protest after 19 band members touched off an uproar when they kneeled during the national anthem of a football game last month, The News & Observer is reporting.

The band members were protesting police shootings when they dropped to a knee, and the resulting controversy has already spurred mixed reactions from leadership at the Greenville university.

From the N&O:

On Tuesday, the ECU Faculty Senate voted unanimously on a resolution affirming students’ “constitutionally protected free speech in the broadest possible spectrum of time, place, and manner” and opposing “any attempt to prevent or inhibit constitutionally guaranteed free speech.” The resolution also condemned acts of violence or intimidation directed at ECU students or members of the community.

“We thought this was an important statement to make,” said John Stiller, chair of the faculty and biology professor.

He said kneeling protests against police shootings of African-Americans have occurred at other universities, but the reaction at ECU was more intense. When 19 members of the band knelt at the Oct. 1 game in Greenville, the crowd booed and the band had to be escorted out of the stadium by police after fans threw debris at them. One band member reported being assaulted in a stadium restroom.

Initially, ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton issued a statement saying the university would “safeguard the right to free speech, petition and peaceful assembly as assured by the U.S. Constitution.” Two days later, ECU officials said future protests of the Marching Pirates would not be tolerated.

A News & Observer review of more than 450 pages of email showed that Staton was on the receiving end of anger by many alumni, fans and others who thought his first response was weak and that band members should be punished. A few donors threatened to stop giving money, and parents suggested they might remove their students from ECU.

Stiller said the reaction had caught the university off guard, leading to mixed messages. “I would say that what was really missing for a while was clarity of the university’s position,” he said.

East Carolina Chancellor Cecil Staton

East Carolina Chancellor Cecil Staton

Despite the faculty’s public statement, it still seems as if there’s a lack of clarity regarding the university’s official position on the protests. Chancellor Staton (who has seen his fair share of controversy since the former Republican state senator in Georgia was tapped this year) was reportedly not present at the time of the vote.

Inside Higher Ed reported last month that the public university was taking a different stance than most colleges that had seen similar protests across the country when three university leaders pledged that the protests “will no longer be tolerated.”

Gov. Pat McCrory has also publicly criticized band members for the protest.

More from the N&O:

Weeks after the event, faculty still wanted to affirm key principles of protecting free speech rights on campus and protecting students from intimidation, Stiller said.

Earlier, a separate petition signed by dozens of professors said students should be able to express themselves “without fear of any real or imagined administrative machinations” and should “never be forced to feel that their methods of free inquiry, protest, and self-expression can be easily throttled or shut down.”

“Thus, we encourage the administrative leadership to take an unequivocal stand against any efforts designed to diminish the voice of students as they express their understanding of the world that they live in or their vision for social change,” the petition said.

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