Tie keeps campus free-speech bill in N.C. House committee, for now

A “campus free speech” bill targeting the UNC system ran into a snag in a N.C. House committee debate Wednesday, when members deadlocked on whether to support it and send it on through the legislative process.

The 6-6 tie means the bill stays, for now, in the House Education-Universities committee. But that may prove only a delay, as the vote broke down on party lines and three of the panel’s Republicans were absent. There’s an identical bill pending in the N.C. Senate.

One of the House bill’s chief sponsors, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, said legislators need to establish “a framework that’s not just the opinion of administrators” for how UNC and its 17 campuses deal with free-speech issues.

The parallel House and Senate bills for the most part echo model legislation promoted nationally by a group called the Goldwater Institute. Similar ones are pending in six other states.

Among other things, it requires the UNC system’s Board of Governors to “prescribe a range of disciplinary sanctions” for anyone affiliated with a campus “who interferes with the free expression of others.”

Other provisions would require campuses to accommodate public protests, force at least some campuses to rewrite their anti-harassment policies and advise campus administrators to “strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day.”

Wednesday’s committee discussion established that system leaders have qualms about the bill.

UNC’s general counsel, Tom Shanahan, said the chief concern is that the proposed statute would replace existing court doctrine on First Amendment issues, forcing state judges to revisit previously settled issues if a dispute on campus sparks a legal challenge.

For instance, it’s possible that protesters blocked by authorities from trying to disrupt a campus event or meeting could sue the university involved, “claiming they had some additional right to protest established by this statute,” Shanahan said.

His argument turned around one of the Goldwater Institute’s claims for the bill, namely that it would offer invited speakers protection from being shouted down by protesters.

Two of the panel Democrats who voted against the bill, Reps. Verla Insko, D-Orange, and Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, questioned the neutrality provision.

Insko asked whether, for example, it would bar university researchers from taking a position on climate change. But another of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, said the wording would only bar administrators from forcing faculty and students to adhere to a particular position.

Turner, meanwhile, asked whether it would forbid campus administrators from engaging in the sort of advocacy they did last year when they and former Gov. Pat McCrory campaigned for passage of the statewide “Connect N.C.” bond issue.

A legislative staffer, Brian Gwyn, answered that since a bond issue could reasonably be considered a public policy controversy, taking a position on one “would be a violation of this bill.”

He later softened that assessment, pointing out that the neutrality provision’s wording asks campus administrators only to “strive to remain neutral.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg