Like other high profile universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill refused a request by Richard Spencer to speak on campus. The school’s chancellor, Carol L. Folt, cited “serious concerns about campus safety” in her decision to bar the controversial alt right figure from offering remarks. Spencer, who lacks plenty of admirers on the right and left, played a prominent role in the Charlottesville protest of the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The August protest ended violently, including the death of a young woman.
Spencer successfully sued Auburn University from cancelling a scheduled speech in April. The university ended up hosting him on campus against their own wishes by order of a federal judge. Despite one scrum, and a credit to the student body, Auburn avoided becoming the next California Berkeley by melting down to hysterical violence over disagreeable and potentially racially inflammatory rhetoric.
While well intentioned in preventing violence, Chancellor Folt may be missing an important opportunity for championing free speech and the First Amendment at Carolina. Especially considering the wider political and campus culture is increasingly censoring speech it finds troubling.
Furthermore, it was safety and law and order concerns that were used by many states, particularly led by the legislatures, to ban Marxist and other anti-democratic speakers in the past. This was sometimes extended to Civil Rights activists and their proponents on some campuses, particularly in the American South. A portion of the 1966 student body resolution at UNC-Chapel Hill in protest of the infamous North Carolina Speaker Ban Law reads: “The University must serve as an open forum for different views and opinions, no matter how unpopular or divergent.” The resolution continued by adding that “We believe it is educationally desirable for us to hear and scrutinize persons representing any and all ideologies and philosophies of government.” This broader view should once again be the prevailing view on college campuses.
Paul Green (1894-1981), a North Carolinian playwright, penned an impressive argument against the Speaker Ban Law in the News and Observer in 1965. His masterful defense of free speech at colleges is perhaps more relevant today.
Green used some of his piece to provide an impressive list of words by some of America’s greatest legal thinkers and leaders, but his own words were equally profound. “The true seeker must be free to find it and to use it freely and to thus push back the frontiers of prejudice and fear that always wait their chance to engulf us,” wrote Green. “The free and active mind is the one certain and sure defense against an ever-threatening barbarism.” He added that “anyone knows that the way to weaken a child is to shelter him too much.”
As the flagship university in the state, UNC-Chapel Hill should not shy away from an opportunity to accommodate even troubling speech. Additionally, universities should not immediately fold when it comes to allowing objectionable speech, especially when leftist “anti-fascist” groups threaten violent protests for the intention of shutting down speakers. “Free speech, properly understood, is not violence. It is a cure for violence,” wrote Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in a July piece in the Atlantic titled “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words are Violence.”
Fortunately, the Speaker Ban Law was overturned by the federal courts in 1968, and the law was repealed in North Carolina in 1995. A monument commemorating the pushback against censorship is located on the campus. The answer to objectionable and offensive speech is not censorship but can only be more speech. In his opinion piece, Green quoted former Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, who in his inaugural address at the school wrote, “the winnowing breeze of freedom must blow through all its chambers.” Instead of following the herd towards narrowing First Amendment freedoms, all North Carolina public universities should strive to echo that sentiment.