Bipartisan legislation passed the House on Wednesday strengthening standards for free expression in the state university system and mandating that all public universities “ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.”
Currently, there are no statutes addressing free speech for the University of North Carolina (UNC) institutions.
House Bill 527, modeled after the Goldwater Institute‘s policy report Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal, requires UNC’s Board of Governors to develop, adopt, and implement various policies related to free expression, and to form a Committee on Free Expression which must make annual reports to the Board of Governors, the General Assembly, and the governor.
“It is critical that we reverse the trend of free speech being impeded on public university campuses in North Carolina,” said Representative Chris Millis, the bill’s chief sponsor. “And we must preempt further violations of those rights by fostering an environment of open thought and expression in the halls of higher education across North Carolina.”
The bill requires that all public universities include a section in their freshman orientation programs describing free speech principles and supporting school policies, and requires that our public universities establish a set of penalties for student protesters who interfere with the free speech rights of others or who disrupt events.
“It’s not ideological, it’s about doing the right thing,” said Representative Jonathan Jordan, the bill’s co-sponsor. “Speakers … are having their events permanently disrupted or canceled because certain student groups or individuals disagree with their beliefs.”
The Times They Are A-changin’
After several disturbing instances last year at Appalachian State University, chancellor Sheri Everts seemed to take issue with certain kinds of political expression: “It is important to note that free speech is encouraged on our campus,” she said. “But not all speech that may be considered protected under state or federal laws is consistent with the university’s values and mission.”
In a recent poll of university students, 21% of the respondents believed that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was an “outdated amendment that can no longer be applied in today’s society and should be changed.” And, in perhaps even more shockingly, 35% of the students thought that “hate speech is not protected under the 1st Amendment.”
This kind of rationalization for the restriction of free speech rights at public universities is what sponsors say makes this bill necessary. “That,” said Representative Jordan, “is the reason for this bill.”
This legislation also comes on the heels of recent protests aimed at shutting down certain speakers with whom they do not agree at schools around the country. Violent left-wing protesters have ended appearances by author Charles Murray at Middlebury College, conservative ‘agent provocateur’ Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California-Berkeley, and author Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College, to name just a recent few.
Many universities have resorted to simply banning speakers altogether to avoid the risk of violence from these radical leftist agitators. According to Washington Examiner columnist Lisa Boothe, “The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley was disinvited from speaking at Virginia Tech because he has written about race issues from a conservative perspective, and Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced to cancel an invitation by Rutgers University to deliver that school’s commencement address in 2014. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which fights for free speech on college campuses, estimates that there have been around 338 speakers disinvited since 2000.”
Conservative speaker Ann Coulter was forced to cancel her April 27th speaking engagement at UC Berkeley (ironically, the birthplace of the so-called free speech movement) after mounting pressure from administrators and threats of violence from activists who promised to shut her down “by any means necessary.” Coulter’s campus sponsors had filed a lawsuit against the university over its violation of her First Amendment rights.
Apparently, the Berkeley situation was even too much for outspoken liberal potty-mouth Bill Maher and Senator Bernie Sanders, himself a committed democratic socialist. While disagreeing with her views, both condemned the students’ threats of violence and their attempt to suppress Coulter’s right to speak. “People have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation,” said Senator Sanders. he went on to say that the actions of the Berkeley protestors demonstrated “intellectual weakness.”
“Berkeley, you know, used to be the cradle of free speech,” cracked Maher. “Now it’s just the cradle for [expletive] babies.”
FIRE issued a statement on the ordeal on April 26, 2017: “Public colleges and universities have a legal duty to protect First Amendment rights. They also have a responsibility to do their best to protect all those present on campus from threats to their physical safety. But curtailing the rights of a speaker in the name of safety is wrong unless absolutely necessary, and canceling a speech must be the very last resort. Otherwise, restricting or silencing a speaker is simply a capitulation to violence or threats.”
“Berkeley should be ashamed for creating this hostile atmosphere,” said YAF president Ron Robinson. “Berkeley made it impossible to hold a lecture due to the lack of assurances for protections from foreseeable violence from unrestrained leftist agitators.”
“We are witnessing the emergence of a dangerous new norm for responding to speakers who challenge campus orthodoxy. Anyone offended by the speaker can put out a call on Facebook to bring together students and locals, including ‘antifa’ (antifascist) and black-bloc activists who explicitly endorse the use of violence against racists and fascists. Because of flagrant ‘concept creep,’ however, almost anyone who is politically right of center can be labeled a racist or a fascist, and the promiscuous use of such labels is now part of the standard operating procedure.”
14 House Democrats joined with a unified Republican caucus and voted for House Bill 527, while 32 Democrats voted against the bill.
A Quick History of Free Speech
Author Jonah Goldberg writes that the movement for free speech is thousands of years old: “In 1689, the British passed a law guaranteeing freedom of speech in Parliament. A century later, French revolutionaries incorporated into law the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which established free speech as a universal right. Two years later, our own Founders ratified the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees, among other rights, that the government shall not infringe on the right to free speech. Roughly a century and half later, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression….’
“Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, was committed to free speech,” continues Goldberg. “But so was Berkeley at the time . In the years before Savio’s movement, Berkeley had hosted speeches by Communists, Nazis (invited by leftists to cause a stir), and political and literary speakers of every stripe.”
An examination of the tensions between controversial speech and virulent protesters is dramatically portrayed in the 1981 made-for-TV movie “Skokie” starring Danny Kaye and Carl Reiner — a docudrama about the real-life story of small town Holocaust survivors opposed to a public demonstration by Nazi sympathizers in Middle America in the Seventies.
From Fandango.com: “Skokie is the true story of a critical test of Constitutional rights in Illinois. In 1977, a small band of American neo-fascists calling itself the National Socialist Party of America plans to stage a swastika-dominated demonstration and rally. Their intended site is the Chicago suburb of Skokie, a town populated predominantly by Jews–many of them survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Jewish ACLU lawyer John Rubinstein is compelled to lobby for the National Socialists’ freedom to express their views, despite his own inner turmoil over defending the very people who’d destroy him. The most vocal opponent to the planned rally is Skokie senior citizen Max Liebman (Danny Kaye), who spent five years in Hitler’s death camps. Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for Skokie is fair-minded to a fault, presenting all points of view with equanimity, proving that there are no simple solutions when the fundamental right of Free Speech is involved.”