UNC Board of Governors committee crafting “free expression” policy

A UNC Board of Governors committee has begun crafting a controversial “free expression policy” called for by a bill passed earlier this summer.

The bill, which initially stalled in the House before changes allowed it to become law in July, aims to “restore and preserve free speech” by having the UNC system create a uniform system for punishing any student, faculty or staff member who…

“..substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others, including protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity when the expressive activity has been scheduled pursuant to this policy or is located in a nonpublic forum.”

It is part of a wave of such bills in reaction to protests and violence on campuses like the University of California at Berkley and The University of Virginia. The movement has been largely driven by conservative lawmakers in reaction to protests against conservative speakers and organizations demonstrating on campuses.

The Committee on University Governance, Free Expression Policy Subcommittee met in Chapel Hill Wednesday to talk about how the policy should be crafted and implemented.

The consensus among sub-committee members: the current draft of the policy is too lenient.

Board member William Webb, a former N.C. Eastern District Court judge, objected to a first offense resulting in a written warning.

That’s just not how things worked in my world when I was growing up,” Webb said. “You didn’t get a slap on the wrist for something as egregious to me as the predicate of the punishment.”

“I don’t think we should give anybody the expectation that if they substantially disrupt the functioning or a person’s constitutional rights…that the penalty is going to be…a written warning,” Webb said.

Protesting – even on the level of standing on tables and screaming obscenities at Board of Governors meetings, as Webb said the board has seen happened – may be protected speech. But actual violence – or creating a threat that shuts down someone else’s ability to exercise their speech rights on a public campus – should result in serious university sanctions and arrest where applicable.

“You can’t assert your free expression rights as a shield – or a sword – against others’ rights,” Webb said.

Webb suggested taking a page from the playbook of the University of Wisconsin, where a first offense by students found to have twice engaged in violence or other disorderly conduct disrupting others’ free speech would be suspended. A third offense would lead to expulsion.

The committee members were less clear on how to deal with faculty, but said they would like to see presidents and chancellors take the offenses seriously and use a “full range of options” for disciplining them.

“College presidents have not been very good about ensuring anybody sees discipline,” Chairman Steven Long said. “We have one UNC professor who has done it three times and nothing’s ever happened to them.”

Webb said the policy shouldn’t dictate to campus leaders how they deal with faculty or staff who violate the policy, but they should take it very seriously.

It may be termination, it may be a note that goes into their personnel file,” Webb said. “But I would not want to tie the chancellor’s hand as to what sanctions they could impose. If it ever got to the chancellor it would be a very serious matter.”

The committee is seeking input from student leaders, and faculty and staff councils over the coming week. They hope to have a draft ready for the full Governance committee by October 19. Language is expected to make it to the full Board of Governors in December.

The trick to the final policy, Webb said, is going to be to make the important distinction between legitimate protest – even protest that is disruptive or distasteful – and the sort of action that prevents others’ exercise of their speech rights.

Webb, a Republican who has gone on record as supporting the removal of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on Chapel Hill’s campus, said those protests are a good yard stick. Students should be able to protest the statue but pulling it down – as protesters did to a Confederate statue in Durham this summer – crosses a line.

“It pains me to see eight or nine police officers protecting something as odious as Silent Sam when no one should destroy someone else’s property,” Webb said.

“The nice thing about America is we’ve all agreed to put up with a little disruption, a little interference, a little everything so we can do it when it’s our turn,” Webb said.

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