East Carolina officials fumble national anthem controversy

By: - October 6, 2016 5:00 am

srs105Banning courageous, peaceful protests and bowing to haters is no way for university officials to act

There’s been a great deal of hubbub inside the right-wing echo chamber in recent years about a supposed wave of “political correctness” and free speech “suppression” that has infected American college campuses. According to this narrative, conservative students and academics are constantly squelched in their efforts to exercise their First Amendment rights by “intolerant, leftist” administrators who, it is claimed, are bent upon stifling views with which they disagree.

Setting aside that many of the alleged free speech violations highlighted on right-wing websites and talk radio have involved racists and/or purveyors of hate speech seeking to hold forth on public universities at public expense, the issue is certainly not an illegitimate one to raise. Indeed, though he invariably invokes such views in defense of Christian conservatives, anti-LGBT equality advocates, anti-Islam crusaders and the like, George Leef of the Pope Center for Higher Education was right a few years back when he wrote that:

Universities above all other institutions should stand up for the idea that it’s wrong to censor anyone or stifle debate, no matter who is offended and how many claim to be outraged. Educational leaders should say, ‘If you think you’ll disagree with someone, first hear what he or she has to say, then make the best counter-arguments you can.’ That should be the universally applicable ground rule for education.”

Of course, the notion that censorship on college campuses is somehow a phenomenon perpetrated exclusively by progressives is laughable on its face. As journalist Katha Pollitt explained earlier this year in a fine column for The Nation (“The Schools Where Free Speech Goes to Die”), the worst perpetrators of college censorship are almost invariably conservative religious schools:

Some of these have no compunction about limiting freedoms that other colleges consider just a part of normal life. Many have strictures on dress (‘no more than two piercings in an earlobe are allowed’ for women at Pensacola Christian College), on dating and social life, even on how faculty members conduct themselves in their own homes. Lisa Day, who taught English at a small Christian college in Appalachia, told me in an e-mail: ‘In the year before I arrived, the then-president required regular, often unannounced inspection of faculty residences, and any alcohol was confiscated—including vanilla extract.’ Students have been expelled for being LGBT; professors have been fired or forced to resign for coming out as transgender, for getting pregnant outside marriage, or for getting divorced. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign, there was a sharp uptick last year in the number of schools that requested and received exemptions to Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination. From 2013 to 2015, 35 schools obtained waivers from the US Department of Education that would allow them to discriminate against students and faculty who are LGBT, female, or pregnant.”

Censorship at East Carolina University

The latest and most visible free speech controversy to emerge on a North Carolina college campus recently follows the pattern outlined by Pollitt, albeit at a public university. It has involved the decision of several members of the East Carolina University marching band to take a knee last weekend during the playing of the national anthem prior to an ECU football game. As most people are aware, there has been a national wave of such demonstrations in recent weeks in the wake of the nation’s ongoing crisis involving the shootings of unarmed black men by police. The movement commenced when Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49’ers, decided not to stand during the playing of the anthem prior to a pre-season football game and it has continued now for several weeks in scores of venues.

Unfortunately, the university has not reacted well. Here’s how the controversy has gone down at ECU as reported by the website Inside Higher Ed and highlighted yesterday by NC Policy Watch reporter Billy Ball on The Progressive Pulse blog:

Since athletes and others have been taking a knee during the national anthem, the leaders of public colleges and universities have offered a variety of views on whether the protests are wise. Even so, they have defended the protests as a form of speech protected by the First Amendment and traditions of free expression in higher education.

But East Carolina University is taking a different approach. In the wake of a controversy over a move by some band members to take a knee while playing the national anthem at a football game, the university has said that such demonstrations will no longer be tolerated.

College is about learning, and it is our expectation that the members of the Marching Pirates will learn from this experience and fulfill their responsibilities. While we affirm the right of all our students to express their opinions, protests of this nature by the Marching Pirates will not be tolerated moving forward,’ said a letter released by the university. It was signed by William Staub, director of athletic bands; Christopher Ulffers, director of the School of Music; and Christopher Buddo, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication.

The letter also said that the officials ‘regret’ the actions of the band members, which they said ‘felt hurtful to many in our Pirate family and disrespectful to our country.’”

The music instructors’ statement comes in the wake of what was a mostly encouraging and tolerant initial statement issued by ECU chancellor Cecil Staton in the immediate aftermath of the demonstration and, sadly, a barrage of hateful and even threatening attacks from some in the ECU community and a bizarre decision by a Fayetteville radio station to stop broadcasting ECU games as a weird kind of counter-protest. (Click here for more details.)

(As an aside, by far the weirdest and most remarkably ignorant response to the anthem controversy was the declaration of an ECU professor that she would bring a gun onto the ECU campus in violation of state law, based on the delusional argument that she would have been exercising her Second Amendment rights. WITN.com reported last night that the threat has been withdrawn).

No way to run a university

At this point, the status of things at ECU is a little unclear. Assuming, however, that the school actually attempts to act upon and enforce the ridiculous edict issued by the three music faculty members, it is an outrageous state of affairs. As the Greenville Daily Reflector noted in its lead editorial yesterday (“College students learning more than some adults”):

Rather than some of the outrage and threats to withdraw support for East Carolina University following Saturday’s protest actions by some young members of the university’s marching band, those indignant over it should calm down a bit, act like the adults they are and place the incident in perspective….

At a university where young people are being encouraged and taught how to think critically — and let’s hope that’s the case — and take fresh approaches to old problems, they shouldn’t be expected to stifle those same encouragements as urgent political events unfold around them….

ECU students do not set or represent the university’s policies or the political positions of its faculty and alumni. They represent their own beliefs. That’s what they are learning to do; what parents and adults ought to be encouraging them to do.”

The editorial is right, of course. Rather than mounting their high horses and spewing venom (and even racist threats of physical violence) toward a modest, peaceful, thoughtful and quite respectful protest, the conservative “patriots” who are so passionate about the national anthem, the flag and the military would do well to take a minute to ponder seriously the values that those symbols and institutions actually stand for. This is especially true for faculty members – many of whom undoubtedly attended college in the 70’s and 80’s when remaining seated for the national anthem was a widespread phenomenon for students on scores of college campuses.

Let’s hope that Chancellor Staton, a former Georgia state legislator and veteran Republican politician, takes control of the situation, reiterates his initial tolerant stance, backs the protesting band members and adopts the argument voiced so frequently and passionately by his fellow conservatives in recent years about the importance of college free speech.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.