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Silent Sam legal claim in question at Campus Safety Commission meeting

Student Body President Ashton Martin speaks on the steps of South Building on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. The Black Student Movement, Black Congress and local and student activists protested the University giving 2.5 million dollars to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which were also given Silent Sam, the Confederate monument torn down by activists on the first day of classes in 2018.

“Accept this monument and may it stand forever as a perpetual memorial to those sons of the University who suffered and sacrificed so much at the call of duty.”

That’s what a representative from the United Daughters of the Confederacy said at Silent Sam’s commencement ceremony more than 100 years ago. The same statement is now relevant again as part of the legal argument, which allowed for last week's backroom Silent Sam deal. 

Attorneys for the Sons of Confederate Veterans said in the lawsuit, filed on Nov. 27, that the Daughters had a deal with UNC — the Daughters would give UNC the monument, and in exchange the University would keep it on campus forever. 

So when former Chancellor Carol Folt had Silent Sam’s pedestal carried away, possession of the monument reverted back to the Daughters of the Confederacy, the complaint said. 

And on Nov. 23, four days before the UNC System announced that the Sons of Confederate Veterans would walk away from their legal fight with both Silent Sam and $2.5 million, a memorandum was signed by the leaders of both the UDC and SCV that transferred the rights to Silent Sam over to the SCV.

The SCV’s lawsuit is grounded in the argument that the organization is the rightful owner of Silent Sam. 

“The problem is that the underlying legal story there is completely bogus,” said UNC law professor Eric Muller at Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the Campus Safety Commission. “It is directly opposite North Carolina law about conditions on gifts.”

Members of the Campus Safety Commission discussed the settlement at length, raising questions as to why UNC would give Confederate group $2.5 million, especially after a message was leaked from the group’s commander in which he said that at least some of the money will go toward constructing a new headquarters for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. 

Muller said he thinks UNC and the System would have surely won the lawsuit had they not agreed to the pre-negotiated set of conditions.

“Why did we decide to settle a claim that was so transparently invalid?” he said. “And secondly: Why did we then have to sweeten the deal with a $2.5 million payment on a claim that was so transparently groundless?”

The complaint cites letters between then-UNC President Francis Venable and representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy, in which the two parties discussed plans to erect a Confederate monument on campus. The agreement was that the UDC would raise funds for the statue, and Venable would act as “UDC’s agent” in helping them garner additional donations.

Silent Sam’s unveiling was ultimately delayed two years because the UDC couldn't collect enough money in time, forcing Venable to corral the additional private donations necessary to pay for Silent Sam.

“The writings back and forth between representatives of UDC and Venable in his capacity as the President of UNC-CH constitute a binding contract under North Carolina law,” the complaint said. 

This legal argument rests on the conditional nature of the UDC’s gift to the University. Once UNC violated the provision of the more than 100-year-old agreement that said Silent Sam had to stay on campus forever, the statue became their property, the complaint said.

It’s still unclear why the Daughters of the Confederacy decided to transfer the statue’s rights to the Sons of Confederate Veterans instead of filing the lawsuit themselves, but the UDC did reach out to University officials in 2018 after the statue was toppled.

“We are willing to take possession of both the base and the sculpture,” said then-UDC President Peggy Johnson in a letter to the then-chairperson of UNC’s Board of Trustees. “We have been saddened that the message of this monument (has) been so misconstrued. He no longer belongs on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.”

Muller and other attorneys have said they see problems with the logic used by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to justify their ownership of the statue. Members of the Campus Safety Commission said it’s also concerning they weren't briefed before the settlement was announced. 

Commission member Kim Strom Gottfried said the recent surge in controversial situations at UNC has her worried.

“I’m very cynical and demoralized about being set forth on a mission, when in one month we’ve had three instances that to me seem to put us in a compromising position to make that mission,” Kim Strom-Gottfried said. 

Since the Campus Safety Commission last met, UNC has seen the release of a report about Clery Act violations, an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education over complaints of anti-Semitism, and the Silent Sam settlement

Gottfried said being kept out of the loop of these big-ticket developments, as well as the circumstances surrounding the events, “seemed to me to strike at the heart of our mission of rebuilding trust.”

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