ELLIOT: UNC leaders should assure free expression

As students return to colleges and universities this fall, campus speech codes are prominently in the news following the University of Chicago’s shot heard ’round academia. Chicago, a private institution, told its incoming freshmen that they should not expect sanitized discourse, declaring in a letter signed by college dean John Ellison that Chicago’s undergraduate college would not support “trigger warnings,” cancelling invited speakers, or intellectual safe spaces “where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”Closer to home, the 15 University of North Carolina campuses do not appear to be following Chicago’s lead. Speech codes are problematic at most of the schools, according to the Philadelphia-based group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE has been fighting campus speech codes at institutions of higher learning since 1999, and continually updates ratings of speech codes nationwide.FIRE’s ratings for North Carolina’s state-supported universities show only one institution — UNC Chapel Hill, believe it or not — ranking green on the stoplight ratings system. Most of the schools are yellow, while four received red scores: N.C. Central, UNC Greensboro, Winston-Salem State, and the UNC School of the Arts.The disparate rankings of the schools’ codes present an opportunity for system President Margaret Spellings and the UNC Board of Governors to take action to affirm the taxpayer-supported system’s commitment to freedom of expression and the foundational necessity of unfettered debate on our university campuses.Currently, the UNC Policy Manual’s Policy on Student Conduct mandates that campuses include this language in their conduct codes: “The University embraces and strives to uphold the freedoms of expression and speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution.”The code of conduct mandate also includes what is prohibited speech on campus — basically already-unlawful speech such as genuine harassment and defamation. Azhar Majeed, an attorney at FIRE, praised the UNC system’s approach on harassing speech, saying the policy “tracks case law” very closely on the issue.But Majeed was less impressed with the language on free expression in the code. “Is it aspirational, or is it really intended to be a defense of free speech?” Still, Majeed said the overall policy was good but could be strengthened. He knows of far worse, particularly codes that aim to protect a person’s “dignity” or “worth,” or that employ similarly amorphous concepts. Courts have repeatedly stuck down codes that prohibit speech that merely “offends,” “ridicules,” or “insults” others.But that is exactly the kind of language found in UNC campus codes, and the reason codes at two campuses are rated red by FIRE: N.C. Central doesn’t allow speech that “offends” others; UNC Greensboro declares that “disrespect for persons” is verboten.The existence of these speech-chilling directives goes to the heart of the problem with the system-wide language. While it would be good to see it strengthened, more important is whether campuses will be held to account for violating its spirit and letter. After all, a stated commitment to free speech means nothing if it is not enforced.Recent events at N.C. State University reminds one of the need for vigilance. This spring, a group called Grace Christian Life had to take N.C. State’s chancellor to court to ensure its members could talk to fellow students about Jesus. Grace Christian said that the school prohibited its members from walking around Talley Student Union while allowing other groups to perambulate. After a federal judge enjoined the university from enforcing its policy, the two sides settled.Debate is the essence of a university education. Students (and the faculty, for that matter) should be purposefully exposed to experiences and ideas different from their own. As the University of Chicago’s letter put it, “Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”Bravo for Chicago. Now UNC’s leadership needs to make it clear that, in theory and in practice, North Carolina’s public campuses are a place where debate is welcome.