The Corner

Education

Despite North Carolina’s Campus-Free Speech Act, UNC Continues to have Problems

North Carolina was the first state to pass the Goldwater Institute’s model bill for the protection of free speech on campus — the bill Stanley Kurtz was instrumental in drafting and promoting. Now that the law has been on the books for a year, the Martin Center decided to look at how well the UNC system is doing in following it. In today’s commentary essay, Magdalene Horzempa finds that there are still plenty of problems.

Regarding freedom of speech, one of the great inhibitors at many colleges and universities has been the presence of speech codes that make it dangerous for students to speak in ways that could be offensive to someone. FIRE has established a good rating system for speech codes (green, yellow, red) and among the UNC schools, seven have green ratings (no observable problems) and nine have yellow, meaning that the school has at least one policy that could inhibit free speech, such as the vague and overly broad anti-harassment policy at Fayetteville State.

Where the UNC system has done very well is in damping down the kinds of anti-speech incidents that have occurred at other schools, where speakers have been hounded and shouted down. There are no reported cases like that in the past year.

Unfortunately, several campuses still have “bias incident response teams.” Those encourage students to complain to authorities whenever someone says or does anything that exhibits “bias.” These make it easy for zealots to create trouble for students who disagree with them by filing complaints.

Another aspect of the law is that UNC schools are to exhibit institutional neutrality — that is, not to weigh in on controversies of the day. In this respect, they are not doing very well, particularly when it comes to those summer-reading assignments.

Horzempa writes about an egregious offense:

For example, East Carolina University chose their 2018 summer reading to be Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. This winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction is more than just a book; it “transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of 21st-century America’s most devastating problems,” according to the book’s description. Though a better understanding of poverty may be an appropriate topic in higher education, a writer’s partisan preferences can affect how they present economic and political solutions for poverty reduction. And that appears to be the case with Evicted.

That book choice serves the interests of people such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, pushing the notion that more statism will solve poverty.

Also, a number of UNC schools run orientation programs that, Horzempa writes, “have great potential to be breeding grounds for politicization.”

The Board of Governors has to report on the state of free speech across the system by September 1. There has been improvement on free speech, but there is obviously still work to be done.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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