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UNC Students threaten federal lawsuit over “Silent Sam”

University of North Carolina students threatened a federal lawsuit Wednesday unless the Chapel Hill campus’ “Silent Sam” statue is taken down.

Hampton Dellinger, a Durham attorney, is representing the Black Law Students Association, a professor and 12 individual students. Dellinger sent a letter Wednesday to UNC President Margarent Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, members of the school’s Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors.

From the letter:

“As UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office acknowledges, federal laws guarantee a series of rights to members of the UNC campus community. Among the applicable laws are Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbid racial discrimination at UNC as an institution of higher learning and a recipient of federal funds. Because Silent Sam violates the rights guaranteed by these and other federal laws, we request that you authorize its immediate removal in order to avoid needless litigation.

Any federally funded institution (such as UNC) that is deliberately indifferent to a racially hostile learning environment runs afoul of federal law. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights defines a hostile environment under Title VI as “harassing conduct (e.g., physical, verbal, graphic, or written) sufficiently severe, pervasive or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges provided by a recipient.”

In a Wednesday interview with N.C. Policy Watch, Dellinger said he helped organize students in the legal effort because the violation seemed so obvious.

“This violation has been hiding in plain sight,” Dellinger said. “I think the case law is strong. It’s particularly compelling in this instance.”

In many instances where campuses have been sued for creating hostile environments, the violations boil down to students creating the environment and the University tolerating it, Dellinger said.

“But this is university created and university tolerated,” Dellinger said. “It’s not something ephemeral – it’s a permanent structure that represents white supremacy in the center of campus.”

It’s been established a university’s deliberate indifference to racially insensitive public displays can violate Titles IV and VI, Dellinger said.

“I hope that they’ll voluntarily take it down and end the violation,” he said.

The confederate monument controversy will be the subject of a meeting of the N.C. Historical Commission, which must approve any removal of such monuments, on Sept. 22.

Members of that board have recently begun to speak out on the issue, with several supporting the monuments’ removal.

A 2015 law – which even board members regard as vaguely written and confusing – limits the circumstances under which monuments can be removed – and to where they can be moved.

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