Community considers political speech on First Amendment Day

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For sophomore Lea Palmer, the right to free speech comes with a risk.

“I’d be worried about walking back into a classroom after saying I was conservative, just because of the looks I’d get from people,” said Palmer, who is a member of UNC’s College Republicans.

Today UNC’s Center for Media Law and Policy is celebrating the First Amendment — but some students say they do not feel secure in their freedom to speak out at UNC.

In the center of a traditionally conservative state, Chapel Hill is a bubble of left-leaning politics in North Carolina. About 70 percent of Orange County voters in the 2012 presidential election voted for Barack Obama, compared to 48 percent of North Carolina voters.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the culture of Chapel Hill embraces a diversity of political thought.

“We have a strong tradition in North Carolina — particularly in Chapel Hill — of being open to multiple perspectives,” he said.

But some students don’t feel that openness at UNC.

“Even if you just say the word — that you’re conservative or Republican — you’re not taken seriously,” Palmer said.

From the inside

Peter McClelland, chairman of the College Republicans, said his organization is often approached by students who want to be involved but don’t want their names officially listed on the roster.

“It just happens because of the culture on this campus,” he said.

McClelland said students in an ideological minority are not prevented from speaking out but rather feel like they shouldn’t — for example, he said some might worry that an unpopular viewpoint expressed in a paper might negatively impact its grade.

“Whether it does or not, there’s still a fear,” he said.

Evelyne Huber, chairwoman of the political science department, said professors are supposed to assess papers based on their scholarly merits, not on the viewpoints expressed.

Chris Clemens, a Republican physics professor and the adviser for the Carolina Review, the College Republicans and the Tar Heel Rifle and Pistol Club, said faculty at UNC — which he believes are 90 percent left-leaning — might have trouble digesting the viewpoints of conservative students.

But he said they would never act differently toward a student because of his or her views.

“The faculty that I know … I don’t think any of them would intentionally marginalize a student,” he said. “They would be appalled if that happened.”

Huber said political science professors at UNC are hired through an ideology-blind selection process, so there is no official record of professors’ political affiliations.

She said it’s a professor’s responsibility to ensure that students respect the diversity of opinions expressed in class.

“Professors are very aware of the need to have a civil discourse in class,” she said. “Very often students are not that way. Students can be quite brutal attacking another’s viewpoints.”

Randall Styers, chairman of the religious studies department, said students often get upset in class because they are emotionally involved in the topics being discussed.

“Encountering new ideas that challenge what they came in believing … sometimes they get unhappy or agitated surrounding that,” he said. “I think that’s actually a good thing. It shows growing pains.”

But students like Palmer say dissenting with the majority is harder than it should be.

Her conservative friends are laidback about their political views, she said, because there are consequences to bringing it up in casual conversation.

“They won’t come out about it and say, ‘I’m conservative,’ because other people will be offended about it,” Palmer said.

Clemens said it’s even harder for conservative faculty to speak out than for conservative students.

“I have felt that it was difficult to speak up,” he said. “Because you’re fighting an assumption that everyone in the room was in agreement.”

He said there is a shortage of politically conservative faculty to serve as mentors for right-leaning student groups.

“I have to advise three conservative groups because they can’t find other faculty,” he said.

Clemens was an adviser to the former Youth for Western Civilization student group. The organization was the subject of controversy in 2009 when it brought former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo to speak on campus, who was a known opponent of illegal immigration.

Tancredo’s presence on campus sparked a student protest that gained national attention.

David Ortiz, editor-in-chief of the conservative Carolina Review magazine, said he thinks the publication and its ideologies are generally respected on campus.

“I don’t feel like there’s an active hatred out there,” he said. “But I have heard antagonism expressed.”

Ortiz said he thinks the intellectual atmosphere at UNC would improve if there were a more politically balanced array of speakers and events on campus. He said the magazine is the University’s second-most read student publication.

“I think that UNC could benefit by kind of re-looking at intellectual diversity and what that means,” he said.

Huber said the perception that certain views are not welcome might be self-imposed.

“Any minority can feel uncomfortable in a context where he or she is a minority, including in terms of political ideology,” she said.

From the outside

Kleinschmidt said he recognizes that it could be hard for a conservative to live in such a liberal community. But he said Chapel Hill welcomes alternative perspectives because their presence adds value to conversations and helps test the positions of residents on the left.

“It ultimately makes us more effective as a leader in the state,” he said.

He said Chapel Hill — a strongly Democratic town in a Republican-run state — is a salient leader in politics.

“At the end of the day, the kind of political ideas that come out of Chapel Hill and Orange County have created a lot of positive change in the state,” he said. “Ultimately the rest of the state comes along.”

Kleinschmidt said Chapel Hill faces a challenge in speaking up to the state because of the community’s progressive ideas, but those ideas are respected because they’re founded in quality research and thought.

“Very, very conservative people hold Chapel Hill in some contempt because we are often taken seriously,” he said.

“If we hadn’t as a community been successful in leading the rest of the state, I think we would’ve given up on it.”

Former N.C. Senator Ellie Kinnaird said Orange County will always continue its historical tradition of fighting the status quo, despite the challenge of being in the state’s political minority.

“You have to understand that anything that comes out of Orange County and the legislature is immediately suspect,” she said. “I don’t think Orange County has ever been intimidated.”

Kinnaird said Chapel Hill’s position is unique, and the county’s voters are powerful.

“We have bold constituents,” she said. “They are very vocal … and they know how to make their voice heard.”

Kleinschmidt said the resolution Chapel Hill passed in opposition to N.C. Amendment One represents the community’s dedication to the First Amendment rights.

“At the end of the day the First Amendment is here for people’s right to advocate for themselves … without fear of abuse,” he said.

“We think that every right that the Constitution provides to its citizens should be given to all its citizens.”

Styers said one of his favorite parts of working at UNC is facilitating interaction between people with differing perspectives.

“I love teaching students here because this is a very good place for students to think about the world in new ways and sort of encounter a bigger world,” he said.

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