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House Bill prohibits compelled speech in UNC System schools, raises concerns and support

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House Bill 607, which would prohibit compelled speech in higher education, passed the N.C. House of Representatives and moved to the N.C. Senate last month.

Last month, a bill to prohibit compelled speech in higher education passed the N.C. House of Representatives and moved to the N.C. Senate.

House Bill 607 prohibits UNC System schools and community colleges from compelling students, faculty and administrators to express a given view of social policy during their consideration for admission, employment or professional advancement. 

Perspectives vary about whether this bill protects or endangers free speech.

“I find it oxymoronic in the sense that, essentially, what they're doing is compelling people not to speak,” Sue Estroff, UNC professor of social medicine, said.

According to Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), a chairman of the House Standing Committee for Universities, the purpose of this bill is to protect free speech and maintain institutional neutrality.

“Universities need to be a place where students can speak freely and debate these ideas as a student body," he said. "Faculty and staff have freedom of speech as well, but the institution itself should be neutral."

Since the UNC Board of Governors passed a provision to prohibit compelled speech on Feb. 23, Rep. Ken Fontenot (R-Nash, Wilson), a sponsor of the bill, said that it would not greatly affect UNC System schools. 

“For instance, this bill actually really will not have that much of an impact on UNC because it's already been adopted by the Board of Governors," he said. "As a matter of fact, we got the language from them." 

Instead, Fontenot said the bill will impact how diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are implemented in community colleges in the state.

“That's where we're seeing the conflict," he said. "It's not in the ideas, it's in the interpretation of the ideas. What's happening is people who are tenured or with power are pushing their interpretation without being empirical or data-driven.” 

However, Estroff said that data-driven conclusions themselves are being challenged by this bill. Rather than targeting principles or morals, she said that there is a national agenda targeting education about structural oppression.

“This is part of a national agenda that's happening in places like Florida and Texas where the idea that's put forward is that anything that discusses diversity, equity or inclusion, by its very nature is somehow damaging to people," she said. "Because it makes them feel ashamed or guilty about structural racism or structural violence that we have plenty of data about having health effects and every other kind of fact of life effect on people."

While Fontenot said the main focus of the bill is community colleges, Estroff noted that this bill poses challenges for professors at UNC, particularly those in the field of medicine. 

She said that the licensing programs for certain national medical organizations are required to address specific curriculum topics for school accreditation. 

Under this bill, Estroff said that classes that focus on health disparities or systemic discrimination could be considered a form of compelled speech.

“I think the language of the bill is so broad that it would say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s DEI training,’ or ‘Oh, you're compelling students to say that they promote social justice,’ or something like that,” she said.

Hardister said that students, faculty, staff and parents on both sides of the political aisle have raised concerns about compelled speech in higher education.

“One of the issues we were contacted about from several UNC professors and students, who really just did not want to be identified, was (about) what they felt was compelled speech,” Fontenot said. “And that was taking positions on things they felt were political.” 

By contrast, Estroff said that UNC has lost two potential faculty members primarily because they were concerned about the effects of this policy. 

“It's a kind of intrusion and dictating at a micro-level language and speech that faculty and students are allowed to do," she said. "It isn't about freedom. It's about censoring.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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