Local News

UNC panel examines possible hate crimes policy

Posted December 17, 2008 6:17 a.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2008 6:58 p.m. EST

— A University of North Carolina panel struggled Wednesday with free-speech protections as members considered whether the 16-campus university system needs a policy to address hate crimes.

UNC President Erskine Bowles appointed the UNC Study Commission to Review Student Codes of Conduct as They Relate to Hate Crimes, which includes students, staff and faculty from 10 UNC campuses, after four North Carolina State University students spray-painted racist graffiti on campus last month.

The students painted the graffiti on the walls of the school's "Free Expression Tunnel" the night that Barack Obama was elected president. Two of the messages 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, but officials said they had no grounds to do that.

"This is an important conversation for us to have, (but) it is unfortunate that we have to do so as a result of the situation at N.C. State," said Harold Martin, UNC senior vice president for academic affairs, who chairs the commission.

The panel heard from Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases.

"I concurred with all of the authorities who concluded that (the students) were also protected by the First Amendment," said Stevens, who added that he found the graffiti embarrassing.

Laura Luger, UNC vice president and general counsel, said any policy can't be targeted toward a group or idea.

"It is over historical events and incidents (involving) offensive, unpopular, controversial speech that the First Amendment has protected," Luger said.

The group also reviewed hate crime policies in California, Texas and Minnesota that Martin said define what is considered a hate crime.

A public forum has been scheduled for Jan. 15 – the location hasn't been set – so commission members can hear from students and others.

Bowles has set a March 31 deadline for the group's recommendations on a policy and on whether all UNC students should be required to take diversity training.