Orange County

With a decision still pending, Cooper gets advice to veto campus free-speech bill

Gov. Roy Cooper has to decide what to do with the N.C. General Assembly’s campus free-speech bill.

Two groups, including one that opposes censorship, have now asked him to veto it.

The problem with it is that it encourages high-level meddling in the affairs of the UNC system’s 17 campuses of the sort that sometimes has been more interested in suppressing speech than in protecting it, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Association of University Professors said in a joint letter to the governor.

The letter asked Cooper to lead “a campaign for [the] universal adoption of free-speech policies on campuses” that at the same time upholds their prerogatives to decide how to handle protests, speaker invitations and other matters.

The free-speech bill is the wrong approach because it puts the General Assembly in the driver’s seat, a problem because “broad legislative oversight always poses a risk of partisan political interference” in the academic dialogue, the National Coalition’s Svetlana Mintcheva and the AAUP’s Henry Reichman said for their groups.

They cited the example of how legislators slammed UNC-Chapel Hill in the early 2000s for asking incoming freshmen, in consecutive years, to read a book-length analysis of the Quran and a work on the plight of low-income workers.

That essentially pressured the university “to censor books on its suggested reading lists for incoming freshmen,” they said.

Mintcheva and Reichman also signaled that their organizations’ worry the General Assembly is trying to centralize authority in a way that’s more likely to undermine free-speech rights than to uphold them.

They highlighted legislators’ move late last year to seize for themselves Cooper’s power to name a third of the members of each campus’ trustee board, and the bill’s requirement that the system Board of Governors set up a special committee to oversee administration of free-speech policies at the campus level.

The free-speech bill cleared the General Assembly in its spring/summer session on largely party line votes in the state House and Senate. It was modeled on a proposal from the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute that’s gained traction in a number of U.S. states.

Based in New York City, the National Coalition Against Censorship counts as members an assortment of religious, press, educational and artistic groups. One of them is the American Association of University Professors, one of the groups in the country that speaks for public- and private-university faculty.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg