FIRE's Robert Shibley Takes on UNC Speech Codes in 'Chapel Hill Herald' Op-Ed
October 18, 2010
Sunday's edition of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Herald contained a sharp op-ed by FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley, who devoted his section of editorial real estate to an analysis of the problems presented by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's (UNC's) speech codes and an overview of the school's recent history with free speech on campus.
UNC's codes currently earn a "yellow light" rating from FIRE, and Robert—a new North Carolina resident as of last month—tells Herald readers one of the reasons why:
UNC has several policies that can be used to ban or excessively regulate constitutionally protected speech. Among them are vague and overly broad policies that allow "harassment" to be defined by the subjective feelings of the most easily offended people on campus rather than by the legally required objective standard of a reasonable person.
Considering the very different standards of and reasons for taking offense that could be held by a freshman from Hickory and a senior from New York City, there is good reason why the law demands a more objective standard. Why doesn't UNC?
Robert also discusses the recent rise of the "heckler's veto" at UNC:
Most notoriously, a speech last year by former Congressman Tom Tancredo abruptly ended when disruptive student hecklers opposed to his stance on immigration got so out of control that they broke a window, caused police to hustle Tancredo out for his own protection and had to be dispersed with pepper spray. Chancellor Holden Thorp was forced to publicly apologize to Tancredo.
Nevertheless, the next week six students were arrested for disrupting a speech on the same topic by former Congressman Virgil Goode.
In spite of these transgressions against free expression, Robert characterizes Chancellor Thorp's free speech record as generally decent. However, as Robert notes, there's room for improvement, starting with a much-needed revision of UNC's speech-restrictive policies. FIRE supporters—particularly those in the Tar Heel State—should check out Robert's piece here.