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Speaker Ban Law plaque commemorates students' fight for free speech

In 1963, UNC students mounted a five-year effort against a state law that restricted free speech, and succeeded.

That effort was waged against the Speaker Ban Law, which forbade speakers with communist ties from speaking on the University’s campus.

Forty-eight years later, campus leaders will dedicate a marker today on one of the outermost edges of campus to commemorate the effort.

The plaque — located where McCorkle Place meets Franklin Street — will commemorate the work of student leaders who brought two communist speakers to that spot to protest the ban.

The ban was eventually overturned in a lawsuit led by campus leaders, from organizations ranging from the Campus Y to Students for a Democratic Society.

“It was the students of Chapel Hill who reversed the statute, who led it to the courts, who got it done,” said Bill Friday, who was UNC-system president during the controversy.

Frank Wilkinson, a member of the Communist Party, was invited to test the law March 2, 1966, by speaking on the stone wall bordering McCorkle Place and Franklin Street — the outermost edge of North Campus, where the law didn’t apply. More than 1,000 students attended the speech.

A week later, Herbert Aptheker attempted to speak on campus but was confronted by police. He was directed by students to the same location to speak.

When Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson refused to invite the two communist speakers back to campus to speak, students filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

Ultimately, the case — Dickson et al v. Sitterson et al. — involved Sitterson and Student Body President Paul Dickson.
The law was repealed in 1968.

McNeill Smith, a UNC alumnus and former editor of The Daily Tar Heel, took the case pro bono.

Bob Spearman, student body president from 1964-65 and Dickson’s predecessor, said the student body was insulted by the Speaker Ban.
“It was very much a blow to the whole concept of academic freedom and a blow at the concept of free speech,” Spearman said.

He said students began taking action when the bill was passed in 1963 through protests, letter writing and, finally, the up-front challenge with the communist speakers in McCorkle Place.

Spearman said in 1965, Sitterson was given the authority to choose speakers that could be invited to campus.

But he said Sitterson didn’t have much of a choice but to disapprove of Aptheker and Wilkinson.

Former Chancellor William Aycock said legislators were unwilling to repeal the law themselves with re-elections looming.

“If anyone was against that legislation, they were for communism,” Aycock said, who held his position until 1964.

Hugh Stevens, co-editor of The Daily Tar Heel at the time, said the law infringed on free speech.

“It was an insult to our intelligence and our ability to listen to hostile or different ideas,” Stevens said. “It was kind of a political slap in the University’s face.”

He said that advocates of the law believed that if students heard communists speak, they might join the political party without further questioning.

Stevens said UNC was likely targeted with the Speaker Ban due to its liberal reputation.
Aycock said conservative legislators and various community leaders supported the ban, including Jesse Helms, a WRAL Television editorialist at the time.

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He said the Faculty Council passed a unanimous resolution against it that same year, but that the students were the ultimate leaders in the battle against the ban.

“Students were the right people to raise the lawsuit,” he said.

Staff Writer Jordan Moses contributed reporting.

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