Campus speech rights focus of policy and controversy

Recent violence on college campuses protesting speeches from conservative visitors highlights what experts say is a long-standing but growing movement

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Students use the Talley Student Union at NC State on April 8

RALEIGH — Last week, hundreds of protesters at the University of California at Berkeley smashed windows, set fires and clashed with police, forcing a conservative speaker to cancel his appearance at the liberal-leaning institution.Two hours before Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the student union, protesters tossed metal barricades and rocks through the building’s windows and set a generator on fire. Police ordered protesters to disperse and the university locked down the campus.The event shook not just Berkley, but also university administrators across the country.”Obviously it’s a liberal campus so they hate any libertarians or conservatives who dare to express an opinion on their campuses,” said Yiannopoulos. “They particularly don’t like me.”Students in N.C. say there is a more subtle effort on the state’s campuses that they say intimidates and squelches the speech of conservative students.”John,” who did not want his real name used, is a student at UNC Chapel Hill. After a classroom discussion two weeks ago he was kicked out of class by his professor when he expressed an opinion counter to others in the room. John said he tried to remain quiet through the discussion which was focused on the recent Women’s March on Washington, D.C.”I was sitting in the back of the room and the professor said he wanted to hear my opinion, and I said I’d rather not because I truly respect others’ opinions and don’t want to get into it,” said John, who said he currently has an A in the class. “He said he genuinely wanted to hear my opinion, so I told him that women had the same rights they had days ago when President [Barack] Obama was in office, and if they feel that way they should’ve been marching in 2008 and since. He said I needed to take a walk.”John decided not to pursue the issue with the university, saying he was not in search of a “safe space” and still has the teacher for the rest of the semester. A representative from UNC-Chapel Hill said the university could not respond to John’s case.”There were some conservative students who told me after class that they agreed with what I said,” said John. “I would be scared personally to speak up if I witnessed that. It’s like you’re being told to speak up but then when you do you are automatically shot down if you have a different belief.”The nonprofit group ICON (Issues Confronting Our Nation) is teaming with the Carolina Liberty Foundation at UNC Chapel Hill to try to improve the campus dialogue. On March 6 and 7, they are bringing Dr. Mike Adams, a professor of criminology at UNC Wilmington, to speak on the proliferation of Marxism on campuses. With the help of Alliance for Defending Freedom, in 2014 Adams sued UNCW, saying he was denied a promotion for conservative columns he’d written. He ended up settling with the university for $665,000 in back pay and legal fees.The same group, ADF, helped a student group called Grace Christian Life win a lawsuit against NC State University in April 2016 claiming their free speech rights were violated when they, after obtaining the required permission to speak to students in Talley Student Union, were told by an employee that they must remain at their table. They say other groups were allowed to leave their tables to engage with students. The university denied the group was treated differently but settled the case by removing requirements for permits to speak and paying Grace Christian Life’s legal fees.While protest has long been considered an American rite of passage, critics say the fine line between protest and stopping another’s right to speech has often been crossed. Last week the Goldwater Institute released sample state legislation they say would protect free speech on campus. The policy eliminates “free speech zones” and times, prevents school administrators from disinviting speakers in controversy, and allows those who are disciplined for violating speech policies to recover court costs and attorneys’ fees.”Nowhere is the need for open debate more important than on America’s college campuses,” said Stanley Kurtz of the Goldwater Institute. “Students maturing from teenagers into adults must be confronted with new ideas, especially ideas with which they disagree, if they are to become informed and responsible members of a free society.”