Changing policies could better promote speech

TO THE EDITOR:

I was gratified to read your Oct. 4 editorial about your support of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) efforts to protect free speech at UNC and campuses across the nation (“Shed light on free speech”). As the speaker named in the editorial, I would like to make a couple of observations.

First, while free speech may be the norm at UNC, incidents like the violent reception given last year to former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo show that there are a significant number of students who believe that vigilante censorship is acceptable. It is thankfully rare on American campuses for police to have to use force to disperse unruly hecklers who are trying to disrupt a speech. The fact that this did happen at UNC suggests that those expressing minority or controversial views are not entirely safe on UNC’s campus.

Second, regardless of culture, UNC officials are constitutionally bound not to enact or enforce policies that conflict with the First Amendment. Failure to do so can have real consequences. Not only do such policies unconstitutionally chill protected expression, but if UNC were to use a policy to punish a student who merely posted material that someone found “offensive,” UNC would be subject to a First Amendment lawsuit that it would almost certainly lose. Such a defeat would be both an embarrassment and a waste of tuition and tax dollars.

UNC need not make many changes in order to bring its policies completely in line with the First Amendment. Doing so would cost nothing. Most importantly, it is the right thing to do for UNC’s students and faculty members, who deserve all the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution.

Robert Shibley
Senior Vice President
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

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