Free speech is more than just speech

This past Friday the UNC Board of Governors voted to effectively end the UNC Center for Civil Rights by barring it from litigating. 

This was a devastating blow to our state, but almost as concerning was that the public wasn't allowed in the room when it happened. Prior to the vote concerned community members and students, of which I was one, gathered to attend the supposedly public Board of Governors meeting. 

When we arrived, the building the meeting was held in was locked and guarded by four police officers with a barricade around the entrance, and the Board of Governors decided that allowing Facebook Live alone satisfied North Carolina’s public meeting laws. 

As they erased Julius Chamber’s legacy from this campus, the BOG made sure that no one from the general public was there to hold them accountable or to speak out. This is part of a broader erosion of free speech on UNC’s campus, and it highlights how issues of free speech are misrepresented here. 

In North Carolina, the common refrain that the greatest threat to free speech on college campuses is enraged student activists silencing people they find “problematic” is usually simplistic and trite, but even more importantly, it completely ignores the efforts of the most powerful actors on college campuses to silence criticism and narrow opportunities for new dialogues.

The BOG is not the only powerful voice trying to impede free speech at UNC. The North Carolina General Assembly and even UNC-Chapel Hill’s own administration are contributing to the destruction of a core aspects of free expression on campus. 

The NCGA’s attacks in particular are among the most radical in the country. The newest front of these attacks come from the deceptively named Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech act, House Bill 527. Though parts of this bill line up with its mission, including a provision preventing universities from requiring students to express certain political views, the broader effect is limiting the range of free speech available on campus. 

It functions to restrict speech in two particular ways. The first is that it mandates that the University punish any member of UNC who “disrupts” any free expression with protests or demonstrations.  

This dangerously, and inaccurately, assumes that protests and demonstrations do not constitute their own form of free speech, and in the process limits the boundaries of free speech in damaging ways. 

This limitation on forms of free speech is mirrored in aspects of the law that create an oversight commission within the Board of Governors to measure the universities’ neutrality which, according to one of the original authors of the bill, is intended to discourage UNC from divesting from fossil fuels

This effort to prevent divestment is dangerous both because it tries to undermine one of the primary aspects of economic free speech, and because it reflects a discomfort with the very tool that proved to be a vital part of past positive reforms like the breakdown of Apartheid in South Africa. 

Thus while this bill nominally supports the most literal aspects of free speech it fundamentally undermines the free speech rights of both students and faculty on UNC’s campus to criticize or protest.

The efforts of the University administration are more subtle, but their impact is insidious nonetheless. UNC administration is not universally stifling free speech. It has, however, become common practice for the University to use facilities codes, and the broader specter of technicalities, to censor speech it does not want disseminated. 

This usage can be seen recently in the justifications given for the confiscation of Silent Sam sit-in materials, where students told they were in violation of the usage restrictions for McCorkle Place, several of which had been recently drawn up to prevent activities like a sit-in. The University’s claim that this was based off content neutral enforcement ring hollow given the context. 

In a similar situation, the Campus Y, of which I am a Co-President, put up banners on our building that had phrases like “Defend the Center for Civil Rights” and called for Silent Sam to be removed. 

The University decided the appropriate response to this speech was to tear down the banners on the grounds that they supposedly violated building codes, presumably unlike the banners hanging within sight of the Y on Memorial Hall and Steele Building. 

We’ve continued to put up banners in defiance of this censorship, and at the time of writing this the University has responded by tearing down 17 total banners. 

The most instructive telling part of the University’s action throughout was to leave up a non-political banner we hung up to test the policy. Despite a supposedly content neutral policy, that banner hang for over a week until we took it down to resume speaking out. When we went back to making political statements our banners were down within a day. For all the times that statements or emails from the administration have lauded free speech and claimed to support student voice, when faced with actually challenging speech they have consistently sought to minimize or suppress it.  

These might seem like disparate examples, but there is a through line that should concern any supporter of free speech on UNC’s campus. 

The powers that be both within and outside the University are trying to limit the public’s methods of free expression. They eschew attendance at nominally public meetings, sit-ins, banners, protests, and boycotts because these are the tools of the powerless. 

When free expression becomes only literal speech it ceases to exist for everyone that isn’t already being heard.  

This favors the powerful and provocateurs. But leaves out students, workers, and faculty who have limited mediums to truly express grievances or concerns. At the core, this is why the NC GA, BOG, and UNC administration are undermining free speech on our campus. 

They are afraid of what we have to say, and even more what it will mean if people start to hear it. 

Thanks for reading.

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