The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

NC's chapter of ACLU celebrates 50th anniversary

The American Civil Liberties Union chapter of North Carolina — which was founded in the 1960s to defend the rights of UNC students to have “radical” speakers on campus — is celebrating its 50th year.

Mike Meno, spokesman for the N.C. ACLU, said the ACLU was formed in North Carolina to stand against the speaker ban at UNC, which prevented state-supported campuses from hosting any visiting speakers who had ties to the Communist Party or who were known to advocate against the U.S. Constitution. 

The state’s organization began as a small group of individuals who volunteered to come together to protect students’ freedom of speech and has since expanded to more than 20,000 members.

“The ACLU challenged the speaker ban in court on behalf of the students at UNC, which is something that most students should be interested in,” Meno said.

The case was pushed into court by the UNC student body president at the time, Paul Dixon III.

Harry Watson, a UNC history professor who specializes in southern studies, believes that though the “speaker ban” was struck down with the help of the ACLU, the memory still continues to affect the UNC campus today.

“The continued effect is to remind people of the fragility of the University’s status as a center for free speech and development,” he said.

The national ACLU began in the 1920s and spread to many states, though it didn’t reach North Carolina for several decades.

Since the development of the N.C. ACLU and its fight against the speaker ban, the organization has advocated in the media and in court for many other key issues — including gay marriage and women’s rights.

The group was the first to challenge North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage, launching a lawsuit in July 2013 — just after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Gay marriage was legalized in the state in October.

Meno said the ACLU was also crucial in defending reproductive justice for women as well as the first to challenge the state’s sodomy laws.

“It is a very controversial organization sometimes,” Meno said. “We not only defend the popular opinion, we also must defend the rights of people we find objectionable such as the (Klu Klux Klan) if we are to truly uphold free speech for all.”

An exhibit commemorating the N.C. ACLU’s rich history is on display in Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center and Museum. It celebrates the ACLU’s defense of the freedom of speech and highlights other key points they have advocated for, such as women’s justice, LGBT rights and criminal justice. The exhibit kicked off Thursday with an anniversary reception.

The exhibit centers around the idea that if rights are taken away from even the weakest members of society, then everyone’s rights could be endangered.

“The ACLU believes that just because you disagree with somebody does not mean that they do not have the freedom of speech,” Meno said.

“This is an exhibit that everyone should see in person,” added John Swaine, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the museum. “It is a really powerful piece.”

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.