This speaker ban, officially known as the Act to Regulate Visiting Speakers, was debated for less than an hour on the last day of the legislative session.
“It was a legislation that originated without warning, without notice, in the General Assembly in the summer of 1963,” said Michael Hill, supervisor of historical research for the state Office of Archives and History. “Essentially, it was to prohibit members of the Communist Party, or persons known to be affiliated with the Communist Party, from speaking on campus.”
Ferrel Guillory, a professor in the School of Media and Journalism, said the largely white, rural legislature of the time reacted to what it saw as an association between activists and communists.
Students were outraged to see the ban’s challenge to the First Amendment, said Jock Lauterer, a senior lecturer in the journalism school and then-chief photographer for The Daily Tar Heel. He said many saw it as an attack on the University.
“We were astonished that the lawmakers in Raleigh would see fit to pass such an egregious and morally corrupt, as we saw it, law,” he said.
Then-Student Body President Paul Dickson and his successor Bob Spearman sought help from other passionate student leaders and attorneys, Hill said. Robert Dickson, Paul’s younger brother, said Paul was a supporter of the First Amendment — not communism.
“He didn’t think the legislature ought to be telling the students who they could listen to,” Robert Dickson said.
Faculty and other system officials like Bill Friday, UNC-system president from 1956 to 1986, strongly opposed the Speaker Ban.
“Bill Friday told me that he launched over to the General Assembly and spent the day talking to legislators about how unhappy he was with it,” said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, a long-time Chapel Hill resident.
In March 1966, hundreds of students gathered on McCorkle Place to listen to speakers Frank Wilkinson and Herbert Aptheker, who were prohibited by the ban.
“They spoke technically off campus on the public land — the sidewalk — and addressed the students who gathered on the quad,” Hill said.
During the event, Lauterer remembers a symbolic sign along the stone wall reading ‘Gov. Dan Moore’s Wall,’ a reference to the Berlin Wall.
“(It was) graphically very compelling to see all the students listening to this gentleman that the legislature said we couldn’t hear, we couldn’t listen to, and of course we could listen to him,” he said. “So it was a real coup.”
After years of fighting, in February 1968 the courts declared the Speaker Ban law unconstitutional.
“You got to say that this is one of the highlight moments in the history of Carolina, during which students played a critical leadership role in asserting their devotion to and their desire for the kind of university that they would be proud of,” Guillory said. “The kind of university that is strong enough to confront ideas that might be unacceptable to a large part of the populace.”
Insko said the event was a perfect example of citizens making a difference.
“You have to be engaged in order to preserve democracy. It is won with every generation. We have to win it again in every generation,” she said. “So that was that generation stepping forward saying this is our country, and it’s a democracy.”
On University Day in 2011, many of the students involved in the fight against the Speaker Ban returned to Chapel Hill to join current University leaders unveiling the Speaker Ban marker.
“This is not just a hunk of rock sitting on top of a wall. It really is an icon and an emblem for what a great university could and should be,” Lauterer said. “With the light and liberty, we are the light on the hill, and when we say that it means the light must shine, and it’s got to shine in all the dark little places.”