Raleigh, N.C. — Fifty years ago this week, North Carolina lawmakers instituted a state statute that sparked major controversy over academic freedom and the First Amendment.
Adopted June 25, 1963, the Speaker Ban Law – legislation passed on the last day of the legislative session that year – restricted known Communists and other "radicals" from speaking at public universities.
The move outraged educators, including the late William Friday, who served as president of the University of North Carolina system for 30 years.
Students at the university system's flagship campus in Chapel Hill tested the law, inviting banned speakers to campus, some who famously spoke on a public sidewalk on Franklin Street in the mid-1960s.
Now, the State Archives of North Carolina has made it possible with a digital collection to step back in time and relive some of the controversy through audio, photos, letters, telegrams and other documents that were part of a 1965 government-commissioned study on the Speaker Ban law.
"It takes you back to that time period, where you can listen in," Sarah Koonts, director of the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, said. "It's almost like you're sitting in the room and listening to the hearings."
Historians say the collection unlocks an important part of North Carolina's modern history.
"I think it's now viewed as one of the central episodes of the 1960s in North Carolina," said historian Michael Hill. "It really brought to the fore freedom of thought and freedom of speech in this state."
The Speaker Ban Law was eventually overturned by a three-judge federal court in 1968, and the law was repealed in May 1995.