Civil liberties advocates have expressed concern over the effects of a free speech bill proposed by the UNC Board of Governors in response to a state bill.
The policy, which will go before the Board of Governors next month, was unanimously approved by a board committee on Thursday. It calls to “restore and preserve free speech” and is meant to keep students from disrupting speakers and meetings on University of North Carolina public campuses.
“The right to dissent is the complement of the right to participate in expressive activity, but these rights need not occupy the same forum at the same time,” the proposal says. “The constituent institutions are encouraged to work with students, faculty members, and staff employees to develop alternative approaches so as to minimize the possibility of disruptions and support the right to dissent.”
This bill comes after protests, some of which led to violence, at the University of Virginia and University of California, Berkeley. The response to this violence by many schools has been to promote these free speech bills, which are often encouraged by conservative lawmakers in response to the disruption of conservative speakers. The University of Wisconsin recently passed a similar bill to the proposed UNC bill, which states that students may be suspended after two disruptions and expelled after a third.
“As it is written right now, anything that is interpreted as a ‘substantial and material disruption’ could be a violation,” Susanna Birdsong told N.C. Policy Watch. Birdsong is the policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. “That interpretation can be very different if you’re a protester, a university official or a law enforcement official.”
As the bill stands now, any student who is found to have violated the policy could be suspended, expelled, demoted, dismissed or barred from a UNC campus. Each campus would hold disciplinary hearings to decide on punishment.
“Right now, someone who disrupts a public meeting, under the current policy, could be disciplined,” said Board of Governors member Steve Long to WRAL.com. “What this policy does is try to bring some uniformity to the whole process, and I think brings it to administrators’ minds more clearly than before because we’ve had so many incidents across the country and even in our own system.”
The ACLU is not the only organization to have expressed concern. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) believes that there is danger in enforcing minimum sanctions for students found to be in violation of the bill.
“We are concerned that mandating a minimum punishment of suspension after two offenses could lead to disproportionate, unduly harsh punishments,” Laura Beltz, FIRE’s program officer for policy reform, told N.C. Policy Watch. “Instead, institutions should have the ability to impose sanctions for disruptive conduct based on the context and facts of each case.”
FIRE once supported the University of Wisconsin’s policy, which the UNC Board of Governors bill is based off of, but later on opposed it. The organization believes that the NC bill should provide a second option for sanctions in which a second offense would likely mean suspension, but the individual university would be able to decide if a different sanction should be implemented.