Chapel Hill, N.C. — The University of North Carolina system will examine whether a policy is needed to address possible hate crimes on the system's 16 campuses.
UNC President Erskine Bowles said he would appoint a commission to study the issue and give him its recommendation by March 31.
The move comes three weeks after four North Carolina State University students painted racist graffiti in the "Free Expression Tunnel" on campus. Two of the messages, which were painted the night Barack Obama won the presidential election, said: "Let's shoot that (N-word) in the head" and "Hang Obama by a noose."
Officials with the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for the students to be expelled, and they criticized what they termed a "tepid response" to the incident by N.C. State officials.
State NAACP President Rev. William Barber said he wanted to talk with Bowles about a more aggressive policy for handling hate crimes on the 16 UNC campuses, though prosecutors did not deem the State incident a crime.
Bowles said no grounds exist for expelling the four N.C. State students, but he was troubled by the incident.
"I find this whole incident to be deplorable," he said. "It hurts deeply. It is offensive, and I believe it is just plain wrong."
In addition to considering a hate crimes policy, Bowles said he also is looking at requiring all new university students to take classes in diversity training.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby told NAACP officials that the N.C. State graffiti didn't amount to a hate crime, so he had no plans of pressing criminal charges. Authorities would be hard-pressed to prove an intent of any threat against Obama from the students, he said.
Officials with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday expressed concern about efforts to punish students for graffiti, saying hateful speech isn't a hate crime.
Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of ACLU North Carolina, said the anti-Obama statements were reprehensible, but treating them as a hate crime amounts to censorship.
"Hate speech alone, with no criminal actions that follow, is protected by the First Amendment," Rudinger said. "We agree with the NAACP that more diversity training campus-wide would be a good idea, and we applaud the students and administrators who have risen up to denounce what was written on that wall and who have demonstrated that the sentiments on that wall are not welcome here. But censorship is not the answer."
Barber said the graffiti isn't a free-speech issue.
"They don't know in their heart what it's like to hear those words. They don't know what it's like to have a history of leaders being shot in the head," he said.
The NAACP hasn't decided whether to lobby lawmakers for a change in state law to make racist graffiti a hate crime, he said.