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New report: NC best in the country for campus free speech. Was UNC policy necessary?

Great story this week from Jane Stancill at the News & Observer about free speech, the UNC system and whether a new campus speech policy passed late last year was necessary.

If you followed Policy Watch’s coverage of the speech policy debate, you’ll want to read this piece, which starts with a new study finding North Carolina the best state in the country for campus free speech.

From the piece:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for civil liberties in academia, released a report in December on how 461 U.S. universities stack up on free speech. The organization judges campuses with its own rating system, with designations of green lights, yellow lights or red lights.

Its study, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2018: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” gave mediocre or poor marks to most universities, but said free speech policies have significantly improved over time.

Fifty-nine percent of the colleges were given yellow lights, denoting policies that are either too vague or restrict speech in narrow ways. Nearly one-third of campuses were given red lights for policies that substantially restrict free speech. Only 35 colleges managed to earn a green light, the group’s highest rating, for policies that protect free speech on campus.

North Carolina had eight green light campuses in the 2018 study – more than any other state. The campuses earning that designation were: Appalachian State University, Duke University, East Carolina University, N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington.

“North Carolina, as far as having policies that respect students’ free speech go, is a national leader,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s vice president of policy research.

 

That begs the question then…why did N.C. lawmakers, using FIRE’s reports, come to the conclusion that the state of campus speech was so in peril that the UNC system had to create a policy that students, faculty, staff and civil liberties advocates worry can be used to crack down on free speech?

Michael Behrent, vice president of the North Carolina chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the answer is simple.

“FIRE’s efforts to construe the issue of campus free speech very narrowly, reducing it to the fight against so-called political correctness, actually contributes to efforts to limit free speech on campuses, which, for the most part, is alive and well,” Behrent, an Appalachian State University history professor, said in an emailed statement. “FIRE’s reporting fuels the attitudes that resulted in the passage of the ‘Restoring Free Speech’ law last summer and the recent Board of Governors’ policy.”

 

Samantha Harris, FIRE’s vice president of policy research, disputes that characterization. She says the new policy will have to be used properly and FIRE will be watching to see that it is.

“It’ll just remain to be seen how the university enforces it,” Harris said. “If it is enforcing it on people for engaging in peaceful protest, who are exercising their right to free speech in a legitimate way, then that would obviously be very problematic. But when protest crosses the line into what we call ‘a heckler’s veto,’ when you are actually preventing someone else from being heard, then that is not a valid exercise of the right to free speech. Of course, the question is how it will be handled in those sort of gray areas.”

She added, “It will be very important that they err on the side of protecting free speech.”

Read the whole story here.

 

 

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