UNC employees sound off on free speech policy

By: - November 1, 2017 4:00 pm

As a controversial UNC system speech policy continues to take shape, the UNC Employee Forum met Wednesday to voice their concerns.

The UNC Employee Forum met Wednesday, discussing a controversial campus speech policy now being crafted by the UNC Board of Governors.

The forum, held at the Chapel Hill campus’ Sonja H. Stone Center for Black Culture and History, came ahead of the Thursday and Friday meetings of the full board at which they will discuss the latest draft of the policy.

With few exceptions, the employees vented fears and frustrations over the process by which the UNC Board of Governors has crafted the policy and its possible consequences.

“In my opinion it’s a slap in the face from the General Assembly,” said Kathy Ramsey, vice chair of both the Employee Forum and the Carolina Black Caucus. “It’s a slap in the face especially to Carolina, on top of what they’ve done to the Civil Rights Center and the Poverty Center.  It’s another intimidation tactic.”

The General Assembly and Board of Governors have shown a willingness – even an eagerness – to use policy to punish political adversaries, Ramsey said – so it’s very difficult for the UNC community to believe that the proposed speech policy will be evenly and justly applied.

And how the policy is applied will be everything, a number of employees said. That’s because the draft language leaves enough ambiguity about what sort of speech or demonstration might cause a “substantial” disruption, which would lead to punishment. The system for punishment is itself ambiguous, said UNC General Counsel Mark Merritt. It sets out specific punishments and a “three strikes, you’re out” policy, Merritt said – but then says individual campuses may choose to discipline those found in violation of the policy differently, if warranted.

That ambiguity has caused groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to express concern with how violations will be handled and how the policy will be applied.

Though the newest draft of the policy did away with a section that laid out uniform punishments across the system, it’s far from clear that letting the 16 campuses decide for themselves how to deal with violations of the policy will lead to uniform application of the policy – or please the Board of Governors and General Assembly.

It’s also not clear how the universities will go about dealing with violations, said Katie Turner.

Turner, from the university’s office of faculty governance, said there is already a complicated system of channels for dealing with students and faculty accused of violating university policies. The new draft policy mandates that each campus appoint someone to make sure the free speech policy is carried out properly – something that will have to be built into the current structure without any additional staff or funding from the General Assembly.

“Some things are going to have to be completely overhauled to accommodate this,” Turner said. “That’s going to mean a lot of resources for something that doesn’t actually seem to be a problem – and those resources are going to have to come from somewhere. Right now everything is tight – budgets are tight, time is tight.”

Several employees pointed out that UNC has an excellent reputation for upholding freedom of speech – something reflected in their “Green Light” rating from FIRE. Given that, they said, there does not seem to be a reason that is not political for putting this policy in place.

“If someone disrupts, we remove them, said Mariel Eaves, an administrative support specialist for UNC’s LGBTQ Center. “Is further disciplinary action really necessary to protect the speech?”

Employee Forum Chair Shanya Hill put it succinctly.

“It appears the only reason to have this policy is because the General Assembly has said we have to have this policy,” Hill said.

Clare Counihan, a program coordinator for faculty and staff, shared that concern.

The policy – and the state law that prompted it – were born in the wake of controversies over conservative speakers like white supremacist provocateur Richard Spencer being shouted down and prevented from speaking at public universities. Before that happened the General Assembly’s Republican majority had shown little interest in getting involved in the issue of free speech on campuses. Given that context, Counihan said, it is inevitable that the policy will be seen as a way of intimidating or punishing demonstrators on the political left.

Merritt, the UNC General Counsel, said he will do his best to be sure that whatever policy is finally approved is never applied in a way that violates the First Amendment.

“That supersedes any state law or policy,” Merritt said.

In the meantime, he said, he will take the concerns of the faculty and staff to the Board of Governors.

The Board of Governors holds committee and full board meetings in Chapel Hill this Thursday and Friday, November 2nd and 3rd.

The board will meet in regular session 9:00 a.m. on Thursday and 9:00 a.m. on Friday in the Board Room of the UNC Center for School Leadership Development at 140 Friday Center Drive in Chapel Hill.


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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.