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FIRE, ACLU both express concerns about direction of UNC system “free speech” policy

It didn’t come as a surprise to many that the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern with a new a policy to “restore and preserve free speech” on UNC campuses.

The policy, prompted by a nationwide conservative movement, is being crafted by the GOP-dominated UNC Board of Governors, leading civil liberties advocates to worry it may be applied unevenly and actually create a chilling effect on speech.

But this week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit that supported the state bill that prompted the policy, now says it also has concerns about the direction being taken by the Board of Governors.

FIRE, an organization much celebrated on the political right, also proposed the creation of such a policy for the University of Wisconsin system – but ended up opposing the policy actually created for the system by its Board of Regents.

That University of Wisconsin policy is admired on the UNC Board of Governors and was cited by board members William Webb and Steven Long as the basis for parts of the current draft policy for UNC.

At issue, according to Laura Beltz, FIRE’s program officer for policy reform: the section of the draft setting up minimum sanctions for those found in violation.

“We are concerned that mandating a minimum punishment of suspension after two offenses could lead to disproportionate, unduly harsh punishments,” Beltz told N.C. Policy Watch. “Instead, institutions should have the ability to impose sanctions for disruptive conduct based on the context and facts of each case.”

FIRE would prefer a second option laid out in the draft, which would presume suspension after a second offense but would let the individual institution determine if a different sanction is warranted.

At a Board of Governors subcommittee meeting earlier this month, Governance Committee Chairman Steven Long said he’s been disappointed by individual chancellors’ reaction to protests he thinks cross the line and would prefer a uniform sanction to allowing individual campuses and chancellors to decide on sanctions.

This week, the ACLU of North Carolina expressed concerns about the vague nature of the draft policy, saying a “material and substantial disruption” could be interpreted in many way.

Beltz said FIRE finds the “material and substantial disruption” standard acceptable – but it will need to be properly applied.

“However, if the policy is applied to sanction expression that does not infringe upon the rights of others, such as protesting outside of an event or staging a brief or non-disruptive walkout of an event, FIRE will oppose such an application,” Beltz said.

“State legislature efforts on First Amendment issues are hard to generalize about — state legislation can often provide a helpful clarification on aspects of the law (like legislation banning free speech zones),” Beltz said. “However, state legislatures can also overstep their ground and can threaten academic freedom rights by attempting to set the agenda for classroom instruction, or by trying to take away the discretion of institutions to make judgment calls based on particular circumstances (like the Wisconsin bill’s mandatory sanctions). ”

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