Twin bills seek changes in UNC’s handling of free speech issues

State legislators have filed two “campus free speech” bills that on their face would eventually force UNC-Chapel Hill and perhaps other campuses in the UNC system to revise some of their campus-conduct rules and procedures.

The parallel measures in the N.C. House and state Senate surfaced at the end of March, and for the most part echo proposals from a national group, the Goldwater Institute, that argues the handling of speech-related issues on campuses across the country is at once too strict and too loose.

As introduced, the N.C. House bill would require the system Board of Governors to prescribe “a range of disciplinary sanctions” for anyone affiliated with a UNC campus “who interferes with the free expression of others.” A board committee would monitor the campuses’ handling of that.

At the same time, the bill also would limit UNC campuses’ ability to deal with some types of harassment, specifically “quid pro quo” demands that openly or implicitly ask a student to submit to someone else’s will so they can participate in their educational programs and activities.

The bill would allow them to punish that only when it involves “sexual harassment,” meaning unwelcome sexual advances, demands for sexual favors and the like.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, existing campus policy on quid pro quo harassment addresses age, color, disability, gender, gender expression, gender identity, genetic information, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and veteran status.

The bill would allow UNC campuses to punish expression that violates state or federal law, a catch-all that would cover some of those things but not all, and that itself can become a moving target if regulations or statutes change rapidly.

Other provisions ask the system board to make sure the campuses, as institutions, “strive to remain neutral ... on the public policy controversies of the day,” wording on that on its face would apply even to issues like tuition policy, research funding and student-aid questions that fundamentally affect their business.

The introduction of the bills is in keeping with practice among legislators of picking up on “model” proposals floated by groups at the national level, regardless of any local impetus for a particular measure. A Goldwater Institute spokeswoman, Starlee Coleman, said bills similar to the ones here are pending in six other states.

An advocate working with the Goldwater Institute, Stanley Kurtz, has argued that the free-speech measure is necessary because freedom of speech is “under siege on America’s college campuses.”

In testimony to a Congressional committee, he cited the occasional incidents of outside speakers being “shouted down while on campus,” and said they occur because of the “failure of administrators to discipline students who disrupt visiting speakers or their fellow students.”

Each incident that goes unpunished has “the potential to send a chilling and dangerous message of intimidation across the entire country,” he argued.

Federal student-records privacy rules, however, shield information about the handling of disciplinary matters, to include the filing and outcome of campus charges except in the rare instances when a due-process or contract-rights dispute between a university and a student sparks a state or federal lawsuit. That makes many claims about student displine all but unverifiable.

More broadly, Kurtz argued that Congress should use its budgetary powers to force even “private secular campuses” to uphold free-speech rights, even though the First Amendment is generally taken to cover only the actions of public universities.

That should include their agreement to host “any speaker” invited by students or faculty, discipline for interference “with the expressive rights of others,” and annual disclosure of “the discipline of those” involved in such incidents, he told the U.S House Judiciary Committee.

In North Carolina, the sponsors of the state House hill are state Reps. Chris Mills, R-Pender, and Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe. The lead sponsors of the Senate version are state Sens. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, and David Curtis, R-Lincoln.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg