State News

Committee OKs plan to halt pro bono legal work by UNC center

Posted August 1

— A center founded at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to help the poor and disenfranchised moved one step closer to losing its ability to file lawsuits on Tuesday.

A committee of the UNC Board of Governors voted 5-1, with one abstention, to strip the UNC Center for Civil Rights of its ability to sue on behalf of clients or provide legal counsel. Ban proponents say the center's courtroom work strays from the university's education mission, but supporters of the center students gain valuable experience through working on cases and that the ban would effectively defang the center.

"This is a school. It’s not a law firm," said Board of Governors member Joe Knott, who introduced the proposal. "Schools have students. Students study. Law firms have clients, and they litigate. ... The school is not a law firm. It shouldn’t try to be."

The center, which receives no state funding, primarily handles discrimination cases in education, employment, housing, access to public services and environmental justice.

Center Director Mark Dorosin called the vote tragic but not surprising.

"This is the last step in a long, protracted, ideological attack on the Center for Civil Rights, and the individuals, families and communities we represent all over the state," Dorosin said. "Those North Carolina residents whom this university is designed to serve are being ignored. Their interests are being discounted."

UNC Center for Civil Rights

Dozens of supporters of the center rallied before the committee meeting to urge board members to vote down the proposal

"You've really got to ask yourself, if you're on the wrong side of civil rights, how can you consider yourself patriotic, and how on earth can you claim to support democracy?" said Derick Smith, political action chairman for the state NAACP.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt likewise urged the committee to reject the proposed ban in a letter dated July 28.

"I am concerned that eliminating or even weakening the Law School's ability to train the next generation of civil rights lawyers will reflect poorly on the University and the School, as well as the University system and our state," Folt wrote. "The Law School has enjoyed an historic and proud tradition of producing lawyers who serve our communities, the state and the nation. It is natural that our students and citizens expect and demand that the Law School provides the best training available, and proper litigation training is fundamental for students to become well-prepared lawyers in all areas, so that they are ready to serve our state and beyond."

The Board of Governors likely will consider the ban at its Sept. 8 meeting.

"The fight is never over," Dorosin said. "I hope at that time [the September board meeting] there will be a real discussion of what’s at stake here instead of the misrepresentations we heard today."

Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette has said he's not sure whether he supports the ban. It was unclear in a statement issued by UNC President Margaret Spellings whether she is in favor of or opposes the move.

"As a University, we are resolute in defending civil rights, facilitating opportunities for civil discourse and teaching students through service – and experiential – learning. We do this in service to the citizens of North Carolina and in honor and celebration of leaders who have gone before. And we want to make sure this important work continues at all of our institutions," Spellings said. "This is a critical time in American higher education, as institutions and systems across the country are tackling issues of student success, accountability and efficiency. Here in North Carolina, we need to educate more of our citizens to answer the demands of our growing, dynamic economy and the responsibilities of civic life. And the University will remain focused on our most urgent imperatives of greater educational access and opportunity for all North Carolinians."

7 Comments

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  • Linda Tally Aug 2, 5:29 a.m.
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    Looks like it's time to review the tenure of the UNC Board of Governors while their looking at things. Those committee members need to be replaced.

  • Patti Smith Aug 1, 9:10 p.m.
    user avatar

    This is just insane other careers or students in different careers have to do outside work like teachers Etc. If the law students can't learn to practice their craft how are they going to be able to do it when once they get a job. Like others commented wasn't the center setup for this specific reason?

  • John Townsend Aug 1, 4:47 p.m.
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    Since this center gets zero state funding, should be easy to convert itself into a private entity separate from UNC.

  • Benjamin Kite Aug 1, 4:21 p.m.
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    One important life lesson for the students is to be INCLUSIVE not EXCLUSIVE in their consideration of others. UNC has been a good example, by working pro bono for the poor. I suggest they continue and let it be part of their mantra and identity.

  • Nicolle Leney Aug 1, 3:36 p.m.
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    You have to love the irony of this statement from Steven Long's memo on the policy change: “If the state or a local government fails to comply with a legal requirement, it is not UNC’s place to initiate a lawsuit against that government but to advise the government of the legal requirements so they can be met.”

    Because the government has been SO good at working on the honor system up until now....

  • Nicolle Leney Aug 1, 3:35 p.m.
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    I'm guessing those girls protesting are not law students because from many articles, the vast majority of law students and alumni support the center. A number of students and alumni mentioned the center was part of the reason they were drawn to UNC.

    So the center in no way affects these girls and little Miss "My tuition isn't for you to sue" clearly knows nothing about what she's protesting, since--as stated in the article--the center receives NO state funding (it relies on grants, foundations and gifts).

  • Andrew Stephenson Aug 1, 1:31 p.m.
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    Wasn't this the entire purpose of the Center for Civil Rights in the first place? To fight for civil rights? We already know what happens when people try to do that without using the courtroom.