In 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill aiming to protect free speech on public college campuses. House Bill 527 highlights the importance of public colleges and universities remaining neutral on controversial issues. The legislation also requires colleges and universities to create different forms of sanctions for anyone who disrupts the free speech of others in the institution.
To address the topic of free speech on college campuses, Niayai Lavien, the Student Body President of UNC Charlotte, and Jesh Humphrey, the Vice Chancellor and General Counsel of UNC Charlotte, participated in a discussion with other free speech experts.
After the law was put into place, institutions were required to establish a point person to oversee responsible free speech. In this case, Humphrey is known as the Responsible Free Speech Officer for UNC Charlotte.
The discussion was also joined by Robert Shipley, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Shipley mentioned the shift that has occurred in college campuses, specifically among the students, describing that they have become more adamant and demanding of speech regulation on their campuses.
The question remains, though, as to which groups are demanding this shift in regulation.
Michael Behrent, the Vice President of North Carolina State Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and Associate Professor of History at Appalachian State University, believes that there is “increasing anxiety among political constituencies about certain agendas being pursued on college campuses.”
There is also the preconception that the free speech debate is a debacle between inclusion and intolerance.
Humphrey also mentioned the different forms that symbolic speech can take, specifically stating that “the power of a symbolic speech lies in its ability to mean deeply different things to different people.” This was in reference to the Silent Sam statue at UNC Chapel Hill.
FIRE rates North Carolina institutions as some of the best in the country in protecting free speech. Eight campuses in North Carolina have attained a green light status appropriated by FIRE. A green light status signifies that “a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech.” A yellow light campus is one whose “policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” A red light campus is “an institution that has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Other North Carolina institutions that hold the green light rating are Duke, East Carolina, Appalachian State, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington and NC Central.
Mike Collins, the host of Charlotte Talks on WFAE radio, asked Lavien if anything has ever troubled her regarding her own or others’ free speech on UNC Charlotte’s campus. Lavien stated that she has witnessed the diversity of thought at UNC Charlotte and the ability to participate in protests or social movements while also witnessing the way the administration handled such student acts.
Collins also asked if she thought that free speech was in danger on college campuses. She said that she did not believe it was in danger, but the important thing to acknowledge is how one’s college campus handles such acts of free speech and works with students to provide and not stifle freedom of speech.
One UNC Charlotte student said that he does not believe that free speech on campus is in crisis. He noted the different types of protests, speakers or student organizations that aim to promote various ways of thinking and said the administration does not appear to suppress their messages.