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Confusion arises over executive branch's abortion viewpoint neutrality

An executive order prompts a multi-party response and first amendment clarifications

The UNC Student Body Government suite pictured on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.

On July 6, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order protecting North Carolinians’ access to reproductive health care, along with doctors and nurses who perform abortions for out-of-state residents.

The same day, UNC’s Office of the Student Body President released an executive order on social media in response to the June 24 overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The order, titled Executive Order No. 2, prevents the executive branch from contracting or giving funds to any business, organization or individual that actively advocates against reproductive health care, such as abortions or contraceptives. 

In the last few weeks, the order has led to tense letter exchanges, a new resolution from the UNC Board of Trustees and controversy both inside and outside the campus community.

Shortly after the executive branch’s order was released on Instagram, many accounts began to tag FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. 

FIRE is an organization that investigates possible first amendment violations on college campuses. 

Zach Greenberg, an attorney at FIRE, said when the order was brought to the organization’s attention on Instagram, they started looking into if it was a viewpoint discrimination violation of the first amendment.

“Student governments at public universities can’t discriminate on the basis of viewpoint when it comes to recognizing student groups or funding them,” Greenberg said.

FIRE’s investigation resulted in the release of a letter calling for the executive order to be rescinded on the basis of discrimination against student groups, specifically those with a pro-life purpose, such as Students for Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Students for Life is a pro-life student organization who released their own letter expressing concerns that the executive branch’s order would financially impact the organization and make campus less accessible. 

The letter expressed that the order creates a “less inclusive place for parenting students and faculty members and actively limits the opportunities and resources available to struggling families.”

Logan Grodsky, the undergraduate student body treasurer who came up with the idea for the exeucitve order, said this is not the case.

He said the purpose of the order was to decide where the executive branch purchases materials for events — not to limit resources for pregnant individuals on campus.

“Basically, what this (executive order) does is it says that when we are going out to buy pencils and papers from a given store,” Grodsky said. “If that store is a store which uses, which actively advocates for the further limitation by law of reproductive freedom, and that’s defined in the order, then the executive branch can’t contract with them.”

The order doesn’t have anything to do with where student organizations get their funding, Student Body President Taliajah “Teddy” Vann said. 

“At no point in that document (executive order) do we describe saying that we are going to bar student organizations from receiving funding from student government,” Vann said. “I think that it was someone reading our executive order and drawing a message from it that there wasn’t a foundation to support.”

The executive branch does not handle student fees or delegate funds to student organizations, according to UNC Media Relations. 

That responsibility actually lies within the undergraduate senate. They must follow viewpoint neutrality, which requires funding to be objective across student groups regardless of their purpose.

Vann said the executive order only pertains to sellers and contractors that the executive branch uses, which does not involve the undergraduate senate or any other part of student government. 

And since the executive branch is a registered student organization themselves, they are protected by the same viewpoint neutrality.

Grodsky said this also allows the executive branch to use their funds to express their viewpoint without interference from the undergraduate senate or UNC administration.

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“Every single day, long before this, the executive branch has taken policy positions,” Grodsky said. “They have advocated for specific policies externally, internally and these are policies that simply not everyone on campus agrees with.”

Vann said she sees abortion access as an issue that effects all students, and the executive order was drafted in light of that, to represent every demographic on campus. The importance of the order has been emphasized as recent legislation has altered abortion rights in North Carolina, she said.

“This executive order was not designed in any way to attack any students,” Vann said. “I would never put my support or my signature underneath an order, a statement or anything like that, that would discriminate against any sector of our population. I take my job and title as student body president very seriously, which means that I’m the president of the entire student body, I don’t get to pick and choose who I serve.”

On Aug. 10, FIRE posted a follow-up statement on their website to retract their previous claim that the executive branch was in violation of the first amendment. 

Greenberg said that he hopes future communications from the executive branch will be worded differently to prevent similar situations like this.

“It would be really helpful for them to clarify, for example, that student groups would not be affected by this executive order,” Greenberg said. “That would’ve been a really good clarification and would’ve been really helpful to preserving student’s free speech rights.”

Vann said she hopes in the future that organizations will reach out directly to the student government in order to help prevent public misinformation. 

“Ultimately FIRE did not ensure they understood what the policy was before making these really sweeping statements that we were violating the rights of our students or discriminating against students in any way,” Vann said. “That directly contradicts the values of our administration and is no way indicative of how we plan to operate our administration over the course of this year.”