Raleigh, N.C. — A bill to "restore and preserve campus free speech" throughout the University of North Carolina system failed in a House committee on Wednesday amid concerns that it would do more to infringe on free speech than it would to protect it.
Calling the state's infamous Speaker Ban in the 1960s a mistake, Reps. Chris Millis, R-Pender, and Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, the sponsors of House Bill 527, said UNC campuses should be open to all ideas, even those that some students and faculty find objectionable.
"Intellectual diversity is extremely important," Millis told members of the House Committee on Education - Universities. "That's what we should be fostering."
Jordan, whose district includes Appalachian State University, decried the use of so-called "free expression zones" on campus, saying the entire campus should be a free expression zone.
Tom Shanahan, general counsel for the UNC system, said the Board of Governors and individual campuses already have free speech policies in effect that extend into such areas as codes of conduct for students and rental agreements for campus facilities. Controversial speakers frequently appear on campuses without any problem, he said, so there is no need for legislation setting up more policies.
"What's wrong with verifying that our constitutional rights are protected?" Millis asked, noting that there are currently no guarantees other than "trusting administrators" that campuses remain true to free speech policies.
Millis couldn't cite any event that prompted the bill, but he noted that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that defends free speech rights in academia, found that only UNC-Chapel Hill has policies that don't infringe on speech, while four UNC campuses clearly restrict free speech and the other 11 have policies that could be interpreted to infringe on speech. He didn't identify the four campuses given a "red light" rating by the group.
House Bill 527 also would allow people who believe their speech rights have been violated to sue, even if they were disrupting a class, speaking event or meeting, Shanahan said, meaning UNC campuses would have to spend money defending such lawsuits.
"This is no longer First Amendment law; it's its own statute," he said, noting it could raise many questions in state courts.
Lawmakers expressed doubts about a provision requiring campuses to remain neutral on "public policy controversies of the day" and not require students or faculty to take a position on such issues. Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, asked whether that would, for example, prevent a university center from publishing a study on climate change.
Steven Walker, general counsel for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who backed the bill, said the measure wouldn't affect faculty academic freedom, only a university's ability to tell a professor what he or she can or cannot say publicly.
Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the legislation was written too broadly and "risks chilling the activity it purports to protect."
"The answer is more speech, not government restrictions," Birdsong told lawmakers.
The committee deadlocked 6-6 on the measure, effectively killing it for the session.