Opinion

Let campuses handle campus speech

hlynch@newsobserver.com

Colleges and universities, we like to think, are bastions of robust debate, free speech and thoughtful exploration of even the most controversial issues.

Often that’s true. Often, however, those traditions are more enunciated than observed. Contention over how to handle contentiousness on campus may be as old as campuses themselves, but from time to time the issue flares more brightly than others.

Today, we’re in the throes of debate over whether some voices are being drowned out by official sanction, or by official negligence in the face of disruptive efforts to prevent some viewpoints from being espoused on a campus. In some states, including North Carolina, efforts by national groups such as the Goldwater Institute have attracted legislative attention, seeking defense against perceived curtailment of conservative voices on presumably liberal-tilted campuses.

This is tricky territory, and it’s worth acknowledging that some have carried distaste for certain conservative speakers to troubling lengths -- essentially shouting down a conservative speaker at the University of California at Berkeley, for example. In the wake of that incident, UC-Berkeley officials canceled a scheduled speech by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter this week because of safety concerns.

On the day the college reached that conclusion, an N.C. House committee was considering a “campus free speech” bill that would instruct administrators at UNC campuses on how to deal with free-speech issues. The bill would “prescribe a range of disciplinary sanctions” for anyone on campus “who interferes with the free expression of others.”

We don’t disagree that interfering with others’ expression is generally the wrong response, but this is an arena from which legislators should keep their distance.

When lawmakers start dictating campus speech policies, ill results are likely to ensue, perhaps most infamously in North Carolina with the “speaker ban” of the 1950s which banned communists from speaking on UNC campuses and was eventually ruled unconstitutional. On the other hand, area campuses can point to some dramatic stands for the value of academic freedom and free campus speech, dating to the earliest days of the 20th century.

UNC Senior Vice President and General Counsel Tom Shanahan cautioned that the legislation could dampen free speech and pointed out the system takes the issue seriously. “Our staff on our campuses work with students every day to help them be able to protest, get their thoughts out and debate,” Shanahan told the House Rules and Operations Committee.

Indeed, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) awards the flagship Chapel Hill campus (as it does Duke) a “green light” indicating no serious threats to students’ free speech rights.

There are serious issues to weigh in keeping debate open and civil on campus; those issues are best debated and resolved on campus, not on Jones Street in Raleigh.

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