UNC celebrates First Amendment Day

University to honor First Amendment rights

Today, students will be celebrating their right to picket in front of South Building, make out in front of the Pit preacher or put up large posters of fetuses in Polk Place.

First Amendment Day, organized by the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, will celebrate and explore the role of the amendment in the lives of students.

“When you look at a university campus, especially a public university, it’s fundamentally critical that unpopular views have an opportunity to be aired,” said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs.

Cathy Packer, the primary coordinator of the day and associate professor of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the day was planned out by students, professors and community members, which helped keep the events diverse.

“This isn’t Dr. Packer’s First Amendment Day,” Packer said, adding that free speech and freedom of the press were the predominant subjects last year, the celebration’s first at UNC.

“This year we wanted to make a special effort to include religious freedom in a way we didn’t see last year.”
Religious-centered events include an ethics panel discussion about the potential for a ground zero mosque and the screening of a PBS documentary called “God in America.”

Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh-based First Amendment lawyer and 1965 graduate of UNC, said the First Amendment has been consistently challenged on-campus since its inception.

He said the University has valued the debate of controversial ideas since its founding, particularly with the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies debate association.

But sometimes speech rights have faltered.

Stevens said he first became involved in free speech on campus during the speaker ban era, which coincided with other civil rights protests.

The 1963 speaker ban — passed by the N.C. General Assembly — prohibited speakers with Communist affiliations from speaking at a state institution and lasted until 1968.

Stevens said there is always value in hearing dissenting ideas, even if they are unpopular.

He said each generation of students has dealt with new topics that provoke controversy, such as the Tom Tancredo protests last year and the current controversy surrounding a Muslim community center near the site of ground zero.
He said this generation seems to be especially divided on religious freedom, which wasn’t a predominant topic when he attended UNC during the Civil Rights Movement.

“For most students, something comes up that gives students a laboratory of opportunity to examine what free speech is all about,” he said.

Packer said the necessity for a day that celebrates the First Amendment was reinforced last year at the banned books event.

She said one student looked at a stand of books that had been banned in various schools and asked aloud, “They’re not banned in America, are they?”

“This is why we’re having a First Amendment day,” Packer said.

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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