Update: The UNC Board of Governors approved this policy at their December 15 meeting without our recommended changes. Read our full statement here.

As students across the country push back against hateful, racist, and bigoted speakers on their college campuses, the UNC Board of Governors wants to put in place a policy that would chill free speech on campuses across the state and may violate people’s First Amendment rights, particularly their right to protest.

The new policy under consideration calls for extreme punishment— including suspension and expulsion— for anyone who disrupts a campus speech. But it broadly defines what type of behavior will be considered disruptive and ultimately runs the risk of punishing protest activity that is protected by the First Amendment.

For example, under the proposed policy, peaceful protesters chanting outside an event being held in a campus building could be shut down and face harsh consequences, not for blocking an entrance or shouting violent threats, but for simply chanting loudly outside. And if any of the protesters had violated the policy before, they would face a harsher punishment that could include suspension or expulsion.

Under this new policy, students could be punished more harshly for disrupting a speaker than other offenses like plagiarism or hazing. As the Board considers this policy, they should remove the harsh disciplinary recommendations and narrow the definition of what would be considered a disruption to include only intentional conduct that prevents people from speaking or hearing a speaker for a sustained period of time.

In the rare circumstances where free speech is truly threatened by student conduct on campus, existing school codes of conduct already have appropriate remedies to address it. These new, severe punishments are not only unnecessary but could end up severely limiting free speech on campus--an ironic outcome for a policy supposedly designed to protect free speech and free expression.

All people, including those with controversial or unpopular views, have the right to speak. But the First Amendment also protects the rights of others to protest and speak against their views. Rather than restricting free speech, the Board of Governors should foster an environment where all voices are heard and competing viewpoints can be aired without fear of punishment or expulsion. Restricting protest speech may be attractive to college administrators as a quick fix to address campus tensions. But this policy will put schools at risk of violating the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, and employees.

A committee of the UNC Board of Governors has already approved this policy for its sixteen college campuses. But before it is implemented, it must go to the full board for a vote. Read the full letter we sent to the UNC Board of Governors calling on its members to protect First Amendment rights on their campuses.

 

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