On Oct. 25, Jeffery Ventrella of the Alliance Defending Freedom gave a guest lecture at the UNC School of Law, titled “Constitutional Law: Addressing the Deceits and Deficits of Legal Education.”
Ventrella — who serves as senior vice president of academic affairs and training at the ADF — was invited to UNC by the campus chapter of the Federalist Society, a student organization "of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order," according to the club's website.
The event was scheduled to begin at noon and protesters gathered outside of the lecture hall. Many of the activists were from OutLaw — a student association focused on educating the law community about the legal, political and social issues facing the LGBTQ+ community.
According to its website, ADF is “the world's largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights and God's design for marriage and family.”
Shortly after Ventrella’s lecture began, protesters entered and lined the walls of the room, carrying signs. But when he began making negative comments about sexual orientation, protesters began engaging directly with the speaker and eventually chanting slogans such as “the Founders were enslavers.”
“We had been told per an email that had gone out earlier in the day that the way to protest was to basically stand around the outskirts against the wall in the room, and so that's what we did," Megan Laney, a 3L law student and attendee of the event, said. "We lined up on the wall — I happened to be on the far side of the wall from the door — and we mostly stood there in silence."
An hour before the lecture, the UNC School of Law sent out an email surrounding the potential protests and reminded students of the free speech policy at the University.
“If an attendee behaves disruptively or interferes with an invited speaker’s ability to be heard or be viewed by other members of the audience, the attendee causing the disruption will receive a warning,” the email stated. “If, after receiving the warning, the same attendee causes a disruption or interference, Public Safety may remove the attendee from the event and, depending on the circumstances, may arrest the attendee.”
A member of the OutLaw organization who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons said the administration intimidated queer and BIPOC students by providing a police presence to secure the interests of the speaker and by threatening to arrest student protesters if they were to interrupt the event.
They also mentioned that the ADF is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“He said hateful things about fat people, said hateful things about queer people and hateful things about people of color,” the member said.
The member said Ventrella was allowed to finish his lecture but did have multiple back-and-forth exchanges with protesters.
“We've asked the administration in the meantime to acknowledge how the values of the organization that he’s from are counterintuitive to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion,” the member said.
While protesters were allowed to stay in the room, other UNC Law School faculty encouraged them to let the guest lecturer speak, noting UNC’s policy on student protest. UNC Police was also at the event but stood outside the door of the room until the lecture ended.
UNC Media Relations said in an email that the students who caused interruptions were reminded of guidelines on protesting — which is procedural — and the event continued.
“The University respects and believes in the rights of peaceful protesters,” the email said. “While anyone — including students, faculty and staff — may gather and exercise their rights to free speech, state law and the UNC System Board of Governors policy on free speech and free expression prohibits significant disruption of University operations or events.”
The UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance wrote a letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Martin Brinkley, dean of the law school, on Nov. 2, calling the protest unacceptable and tasking the University with preventing this type of situation in the future.
“We believe that any speaker invited by any University-approved group or representative should receive the utmost courtesy and respect, not to mention absolute rights of free speech stated in UNC-CH’s principles, reinforced by the First Amendment,” the letter said.
Guskiewicz responded in a statement on Nov. 4 and said, “While we cannot always predict outbursts or protest during events, we try to use instances such as this to educate our students about exercising their rights of free speech and the importance of not infringing on the rights of others.”
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