Campus free speech bill stalls in committee

H.B. 527 would codify free speech policies for UNC System campuses, requiring a committee and giving legal recourse to victims of campus violations of free expression

Students rally for the removal of a statue of a Confederate soldier nicknamed Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina during a demonstration for its removal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

RALEIGH —— A House education committee Wednesday considered legislation to reinforce and codify free speech protections on campuses of the University of North Carolina System.

House Bill 527, titled Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech, requires the UNC Board of Governors to develop free expression policy that states “it is not proper for any constituent institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive” among other provisions.

The bill was crafted with input from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, as he has spearheaded an effort to push back against the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “free speech zones,” as well as other practices that conservatives worry limit free speech on campus.

With a couple members not in attendance due to conflicting committee schedules, the vote on issuing a favorable report on H.B. 527 ended in stalemate along party lines, tied 6-6.

Rep. Chris Millis (R-Onslow), a primary sponsor of the bill, was unfazed by the roadblock and confident the bill will get a second chance before next week’s crossover deadline.”There’s no question that the legislation is not dead,” said Millis in an interview.

“I wanted a vote just so the public can very clearly see who stands for the First Amendment and who doesn’t, and it’s very clear. The legislation will put in place front-end checks and balances to pre-empt violations of one’s free speech rights.”

The legislation also includes provisions that require the UNC System to create an 11-member “Free Speech Committee” that will report annually to the Board of Governors on barriers to or disruptions of free speech on constituent campuses, descriptions of how those colleges are administrating disciplinary action of such infractions, and the status of maintaining administrative and institutional neutrality on controversial political and social issues.

During the hearing committee members heard from UNC General Counsel Thomas Shanahan, who shared concerns over sections of the bill that give legal recourse to those who feel the their free speech rights have been infringed, requiring payment of legal fees and damages by the university should it be found guilty of the allegation under the proposed law, as well as language that protects a person’s right to protest on campus.

“We worry that that language coupled with the cause of action would then create uncertainty and murkiness in the law where we will have protesters who have disrupted meetings and who were removed for that could sue the university claiming that they have some additional right to protest and demonstrate created by this statute,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan stated the system’s concern with frivolous lawsuits and assured the committee that the institution already enshrines speech protections in university code.

“The university has a firm and well-established commitment to freedom of expression and First Amendment principles,” said Shanahan. “It’s actually reflected in the code of the the university.”

Mike Adams, a UNC Wilmington professor of criminology and advocate for campus free speech movements, asserted in an interview that recent evidence suggests system campuses have had demonstrable issues with free speech protection despite university code.

“There are policies that we’ve had to sue to get around like Appalachian State’s that said people had a right to attend the school without being offended, intimidated, belittled or subjected to challenging speech,” said Adams. “In 2013 a woman was upset with the way they were handling her sexual assault allegations and they actually prosecuted her for criticizing them under the speech code, and that’s when it blew up in the court of public opinion. That’s when you knew something was wrong and the universities couldn’t be trusted.”

Further, Adams is encouraged by provisions of the bill that would require its explanation during freshmen orientations.

“We’ve had for a couple of years, this is fairly new thing, this micro-aggression training occurring during freshmen orientations, and that is particularly dangerous because it’s teaching kids to really go after one another and attack one another and try to assert this right to be unoffended over another person’s speech,” said Adams.

“Too frequently we refer to these people as snowflakes, but the fact of the matter is we’re producing narcissists.”Adams, who advised legislators on the crafting of the bill, is encouraged by the attention being paid to the issue by Forest and other lawmakers.

“I’m just thrilled that something is being done,” Adams said. “I mean it’s just fantastic. It actually should be an embarrassment to the system that this was necessary.”

Millis said he will work to get another hearing before crossover deadlines and believes the committee vote offered a clear dividing moment on what he considers a common-sense measure.

“I’m for diversity of thought regardless of opinions that I may or may not agree with, and this is exactly what is reflected in this legislation,” said Millis.

The bill remains in committee, having to clear it and one other before reaching the House floor. Crossover deadline for legislation to pass from one chamber to the other is next Thursday, April 27.