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Sunday January 17th

Op-ed: Why Silent Sam can be moved

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Last week a video surfaced online of a man whaling on Silent Sam’s face with a hammer. The video was apparently recorded last August, a day after a group of people destroyed a similar Confederate statue up in Durham.  

Since August, Confederate statues have come down across the South. But not Silent Sam.  

The main reason our statue remains, we’ve been told, is a law: Section 100-2.1 of the North Carolina General Statutes, entitled “Protection of Monuments, Memorials, and Works of Art.” We’ve been told that this law is complicated and unclear – a knot that only the State Historical Commission can possibly untangle.

That’s not true. The law’s pretty clear, actually. And it allows Silent Sam to be moved.

Here, in layman's terms, is what the law does.  

It has three pieces. The first piece states a rule. The second piece gives some details about the rule. And the third piece mentions a couple of situations where the rule doesn’t apply.  

It’s a little easier to follow if we take the three pieces out of order, putting the third one second and the second one third.  If we do that, the law goes like this: 

1.  The Rule:  A thing like Silent Sam can’t be moved without the Historical Commission’s say-so.

2.  The Rule doesn’t apply at all (meaning that the State Historical Commission’s say-so is not needed) in three situations:

a.  where the thing is a highway marker,

b.  where the thing is privately owned and its owner has an agreement about it with the state, or

c.  where the thing is in such dangerous shape that a building inspector says it poses a threat to public safety.

3.  The Rule does apply – that is, the Historical Commission’s say-so to move the thing is needed – in two situations.

a.  where the thing is standing in the way of construction projects, or

b.  where the thing needs to be moved in order to “preserve” the thing.

Did you catch that last line? The Historical Commission can give the say-so to move Silent Sam to “preserve” it.

To date, all of the conversation about Silent Sam has oddly focused on the wrong provision of the law — section 2(c) of my little outline, the provision that says the law doesn’t apply at all when a building inspector says the thing’s condition presents a danger to the public.

That’s not our situation. Silent Sam isn’t so tottering and decrepit that he’s about to tumble over and crush a passer-by.

Instead, we find ourselves in a spot where the statute is itself in danger. (If you need persuading, look again at Silent Sam getting pummeled in that video or at photos of the crumpled heap of metal up in Durham.)

Here the law is clear: with the Historical Commission’s say-so, Silent Sam can be moved. That’s what line 3(b) of my little outline clearly states.

I loathe what Silent Sam stands for, but he’s a tragically meaningful piece of university history and should be preserved.  Yes, “preserved” – just like the law says he can be.

Under the law, UNC can’t make a request of the State Historical Commission on its own. The Board of Governors, or the State or some other political subdivision of the State, would have to do that.

But if and when someone with authority decides to protect Silent Sam from destruction, I hope the State Historical Commission will see that the law isn’t as muddy and complex as some say. It’s not muddy or complex at all. It clearly allows Silent Sam to be moved.

Prof. Eric Muller 

UNC School of Law

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