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UNC Faculty Council passes free speech resolution at monthly meeting

UNC's provost, Chris Clemmons, speaks at the beginning of Friday's Faculty Council meeting on Sept. 9, 2022 in Karr Hall.

In the past, faculty members like Law Professor Michael Gerhardt have received death threats after expressing their political opinions online.

The UNC Faculty Council met last Friday for the first meeting of the 2022-2023 school year to vote on a resolution regarding the faculty’s free speech and rights under the First Amendment. 

The council drafted the resolution as the result of concerns about whether the faculty could speak freely and expect to be supported by the University. The resolution passed by a majority vote after the addition of two minor amendments. 

Free Speech on Campus

  • Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman raised concerns she had heard from the faculty about their ability to express themselves freely on campus through her research over the summer.
    • “I was alerted that faculty are getting, at best, mixed messages about their ability to speak out on their research and scholarship as it pertains to issues of the day,” Chapman said. “There is confusion about what constitutes political activity, which may be curtailed when using University time or resources, versus speaking about issues that have become politicized.”
    • Chapman then described a specific incident in which one faculty member’s personal website was taken down without consultation with the faculty member after receiving threats and accusations from an individual outside the University.
    • “We shouldn't be intimidated into hiding our light under the proverbial bushel,” Chapman said.
  • Gerhardt shared his experiences and expertise about the faculty’s First Amendment rights.
    • Gerhardt first discussed the University’s mission statement and its relevance to the concept of faculty freedom of speech on campus.
    • “‘With lux, libertas — light and liberty — as its founding principles, the University has charted a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world's greatest problems,'" Gerhardt read from the statement. "I like that. It's one of the reasons I came here; one of the things that helps define a great University.” 
  • When a faculty member at UNC clarifies that they speak individually and not as a representative of the University, it helps to make speech protected under the First Amendment, said Gerhardt. On occasions where he has testified before Congress as an expert in Constitutional Law, he makes it clear that he speaks on his own behalf and that his remarks are not affiliated with the University.
    • "(Political speech) is protected when expressed by private citizens to the fullest extent of the law,” Gerhardt said.
  • Political speech must also have “pertained to a matter of public opinion,” and individuals must “balance the speech against the institution's interest in efficient operations” to whether or not the interests of the University outweigh the interests of the faculty member expressing their beliefs. 
  • Gerhardt closed by saying that free expression can still be difficult even when it does not violate the First Amendment.
    • “I think that part of our job, part of the mission of this University, is to be able to speak truth to power, and sometimes even the power doesn't like to hear it,” Gerhardt said. “But I think that's partly why we're here. Otherwise, we will not be able to advance knowledge and critical thinking and improve the world in any shape or form.”
  • During a time allotted for questions after Gerhardt’s speech, Assistant Professor Allison Schlobohm of the Kenan-Flagler Business School asked how the University could protect those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of speaking out about issues that affect them.
    • Gerhardt spoke about his experience receiving death threats from supporters of former President Trump for an article published in the Washington Post in 2019. He said back then, did not feel supported at all until he got an email from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz: 
      • “There were about 24 or 36 hours where I had nothing but death threats, and nobody at the University was saying anything to support me,” Gerhardt said.
  • Gerhardt, quoting from the UNC System Policy Manual, then emphasized the need for professors at UNC to be supported and protected in their "responsible exercise of the freedom to teach, to learn, and otherwise seek and speak the truth."

Amendments and Voting

  • Dr. Jennifer McEntee of the School of Medicine proposed an amendment to add language stating that the University will “publicly advocate for faculty safety” to the resolution. 
  • Professor Beth Mayer-Davis of Gillings School of Global Public Health liked the idea, but questioned whether the amendment was actionable. 
  • After a vote of 37-30 with one abstention, the amendment passed, and the Faculty Council then passed the amended resolution.

What else is new?

  • Provost Chris Clemens made his own remarks about goals for the 2022-2023 academic year.
    • Clemons stated that the Faculty Council wants to elevate the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, restore funding to campus libraries and advocate for graduate student stipend raises. 
      • Clemons said the efforts related to the Center for Faculty Excellence would be focused on making the process for nominating faculty for awards and recognition easier and more streamlined.
      • Clemons credited Graduate and Professional Student Government President Theodore Nollert for leading the charge to raise research stipends for graduate students.
        • “The graduate students have really seized the lead, both in providing the data and the animating spirit of an effort that we hope will result in us doing better by our graduate students,” Clemons said.
  • The School of Data Science and Society launched this fall; Clemons said that the hiring of faculty for this school and the approval of its curriculum is in motion.
  • During the allotted time for questions, Professor of English and Comparative Literature Jessica Wolfe asked whether the University had plans to address the $988 million backlog in deferred maintenance, and specifically any potential future efforts in making UNC more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act
    • Chapman replied that the University had recently received approximately $1.1 million from the state to address deferred maintenance; Clemons added that some campus money has been collected to take care of “immediate needs.”