Durham County

Campus free-speech bill heads to Cooper; why Durham and Orange lawmakers voted no

Students and others took turns speaking out against the hiring of UNC system president Margaret Spellings outside Wilson Library on the Chapel Hill campus in this March 1, 2016, file photo.
Students and others took turns speaking out against the hiring of UNC system president Margaret Spellings outside Wilson Library on the Chapel Hill campus in this March 1, 2016, file photo. News and Observer file photo

After further legislative tinkering to give university leaders more control over their institutions, a “campus free speech” bill for the UNC system cleared the N.C. General Assembly on the session’s penultimate day and now awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature.

N.C. House members accepted a state Senate change that struck wording that would have made the “park areas, sidewalks, plazas and similar spaces” on each of the 17 campuses “public forums” where anyone could speak or protest with few limits.

Senators’ replacement language said campus-level rules should follow “First Amendment jurisprudence” that allows institutions to decide which areas are open and which ones aren’t, and set “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on access.

The House had already backed away from original wording borrowed from model legislation pushed by the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute that would have declared all “public areas” of the campuses, including the indoor ones, are public forums “open on the same terms to any speaker.”

The Senate version of the bill cleared that chamber on a party-line, 34-11 vote. House members voted later, 80-31, to accept the change and pass the bill rather than insist on their version.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, and other members of the Durham and Orange County legislative delegations joined most of their fellow Democrats in voting against the proposal. He said later that he didn’t think “there was any compelling reason or justification for adopting” it “at this time.”

An additional concern was the feeling that campus faculties weren’t consulted along the way.

“When I don’t hear that the faculty or professors have been engaged in part of the process, I’m going to have reservations about it,” McKissick said, adding that he “shared some of my concerns” with fellow party members after raising questions in committee debate.

The bill that made it through retained a provision the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has objected to that requires universities to set up “a range of disciplinary sanctions” for anyone who “substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.”

The group’s leaders believe the discipline clause, instead of promoting free speech, could be used to clamp down on protests and counterprotests if authorities adopt a loose interpretation of just what exactly constitutes interference.

A different objection came Monday from a conservative group, the Martin Center for Academic Renewal. One of its commentators, Jay Schalin, lamented the General Assembly’s decision to strike from the original proposal a sentence that would have required UNC’s campuses to “remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day.”

That wording dropped out after legislative aides said it might have prevented campus leaders from supporting things like the statewide bond issue that former Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly proposed last year to fund university construction projects.

A surviving provision says campus officials can’t “require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.” But Schalin argued that the broader version would have taken away an “incentive for dissenting voices – which are often the means by which knowledge is advanced or corrected – to remain silent on campus.”

The original language, however, define neither the concept of institutional neutrality or how it should affect operations. Schalin singled out debates on human-caused climate change, “diversity, equality and inclusion,” and academic boycotts of Israel as examples of public policy controversies. The list, however, could easily be broadened to include such matters as the theory of evolution or LGBTQ rights.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg