In a five to one vote, the education committee from UNC Board of Governors approved a draft on Tuesday, August 1, that blocks the UNC (Chapel Hill) Center for Civil Rights litigation abilities.
The draft, which will affect university-wide policies, is meant to keep the Center from suing on behalf of individuals in civil rights cases, whether it is against another individual, an entity, or the government. It also bans the Center, as well as other centers and institutes, from letting professors or students act as legal counsel in such cases.
“The university should not be, in my opinion, hiring full-time lawyers to sue anybody,” said Steven Long, a board member on the education committee, in an interview with The News & Observer.
The UNC Center for Civil Rights was founded in 2001 by Julius L. Chambers and is privately funded. It has a five person staff; two of which are lawyers. According to the UNC School of Law’s website, the staff’s mission is to use education and community-based advocacy to promote justice for families, regardless of race or status.
“The Center was founded to pursue a…mission: equipping future generations of attorneys with the skills to secure fair and equal opportunities for minority and low-income people, leading in influencing public policies…that remove racial and economic inequalities, and representing, educating, and advocating for minority and low-income people,” the UNC School of Law website states. “The Center’s work recognizes the interrelatedness of these mission components, which each rely on the others.”
If passed, the bill will not only affect the staff of the Center and its clients, but UNC professors and students as well. Professors often use litigation practice as a teaching style, similar to how medical students must practice treating actual patients while being led by advisors. This allows students to develop the skills necessary for practicing law while getting hands on experience, as is required by the American Bar Association.
“One vital import of the ban would be to reduce the number of experiential learning opportunities available to our law students. If the ban takes place, UNC Law will offer less opportunities for students to obtain experiential education,” said Erika Wilson, an Assistant Professor of Law at UNC. “As a law professor who teaches in a Clinic, it will also place more demand on our Clinics to try and meet outsized student demands for experiential education. As an academic, it sends a chilling message regarding academic freedom, namely that as professors we are not free and afforded deference in terms of our curriculum selection.”
Not everyone at UNC sees the practice of allowing students to participate in litigation the same way. North Carolina College Republicans from UNC recently protested outside of the Center, voicing their concerns towards the use of funds. Some held signs reading “Education Not Litigation” or “Don’t Use My Tuition To Sue My Gov.” Long argues that because the mission for the Center is advocacy, it does not have students as its primary focus and that academic freedom does not include the right to hire lawyers.
“I am pleased that the committee voted to keep our academic centers focused on education, not litigation,” Long said in a statement after the vote took place.
The current draft of the litigation ban, which is being called an “attack on the center” on the UNC School of Law website, will be moving to a full board vote in September.
“Supporters of the ban have indicated that litigation has no place in a law school,” Wilson said. “That is counter to the very mission of a law school—to train future lawyers including future lawyers who will litigate. It also infringes upon the academic freedom of law professors to determine how to best teach and train law students.”
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