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UNC Center for Civil Rights under threat

Law School

The Van Hecke-Wettach Hall hosts UNC's School of Law.

UNC's Board of Governors will vote on whether to pass a litigation ban against the UNC Center for Civil Rights in early September. The ban would prevent the center from representing clients and acting as legal counsel to any party. 

Student Body President Elizabeth Adkins sent a letter to the BOG, asking them to allow the center to continue its work. She said the ban would cripple the center and take away a serious asset from the School of Law.

“The reason that they should be able to litigate is that these law students get experience shadowing legal professionals,” Adkins said. “They get access to knowledge they can’t find in textbooks. That’s an advantage UNC can provide as one of the top law schools in the country.”

Adkins spoke at a public comment a few weeks ago, an event that was planned quickly once supporters of the center discovered the threat of a ban.

“It’s been an ongoing battle for us,” she said. “We found out that this was something that the BOG was going to do. We signed up to speak the public comment at what was almost an emergency meeting. Thankfully we were able to get a spot, and basically what I wanted to do was elevate the voices of the students. It doesn’t really affect undergrads, but this was about grad students, particularly students in the law school.”

Adkins said she plans to attend BOG meetings concerning the proposal, which is scheduled for discussion as an Aug. 1 meeting of the education policy committee meeting. There, they will decide whether or not to recommend the proposal to the board.

The Board of Governors' Proposed Policy on Involvement of Centers and Institutes in Legal Actions

Director of the Center for Civil Rights Ted Shaw said the BOG is deliberately targeting the center, aiming to incapacitate its presence by taking away its ability to litigate against North Carolina organizations. 

“The attack on the center’s ability to litigate is an attack on the center for ideological reasons," Shaw said. "Even though they claim that the center has no business suing the entities of the state, but that’s inconsistent with the reality that clinical programs at any law school sue state institutions commonly."

Shaw said that the center was facing questions from the BOG about the litigation work it does, and that the University was helping them collect information.

“The University has been working through a group that was established at the Chancellor’s behest to answer the questions that were put before us by the Board of Governors,” Shaw said.

Law schools across the country including Columbia, Harvard and Duke have programs that allow students to work alongside professional litigators. Shaw said this teaches students a lot, providing them with a strong resource which lets them gain experience.

“This takes apart the center as it was created,” he said. "And the legacy of Julius Chambers, who is one of the greatest alumni of the university.”

Judith Wegner was dean of the School of Law from 1989 to 1999 and has been involved with UNC legal education for over 30 years. She said the Center for Civil Rights has been an excellent learning tool for her students throughout her career.

“I usually taught first-year properties, so I’ve had people from the center come in and talk about issues that poor minorities face all the time,” she said. “Having people from the civil rights center come in and talk about their research and then having students go in and participate in their projects is a wonderful learning experience for them.”

Wegner said the center provided good hands-on experience, but first and foremost it provided her students with a sense of purpose and a desire to give back with their services.

“It really helps instill in students an appreciation for how lawyers can help people and what upholding the law really means,” she said.

Wegner believes the proposed litigation ban is an outright attack on the center, and worries that it will damage the law school’s reputation across the country.

“I worry that if I were a student in college wanting to go to law school, I’d worry whether or not UNC was a good place to go to law school,” she said.

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The Board of Governors has the legal authority to vote on a litigation ban, but Wegner thinks it lacks the moral authority to make such a decision. There's also a national petition from clinical researchers around the country to stop the litigation ban.

“I think all of us have a stake in that the University shouldn’t have educational decisions made by people with political axes to grind,” she said.

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