Two North Carolina Newspapers Opine on NCSU’s ‘Free Expression Tunnel’ Debacle
December 2, 2008
by Luke Sheahan
On Saturday, an editorial in the News-Record of Greensboro, N.C., comments on President Erskine Bowles' instituting a commission to consider a system-wide policy to ban this sort of speech as a "hate crime." The News-Record warns, however,
When freedom of speech is curtailed for any reason, the danger exists of suppressing it too widely and for the wrong motives. Exactly how do authorities create a policy that clearly distinguishes between expression that must be permitted and expression that should be denied?
Good question—and one that Bowles should consider. Unfortunately, after giving a good case against a system-wide speech code, the editorial then seems to applaud the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) for handling such speech with a policy prohibiting "conduct which disturbs the peace of the community," which doesn't sound too bad until you learn in the next few sentences that students can be called in for "educational conversations" or worse when their speech is "inappropriate" or causes an "uproar"—unconstitutionally conditioning free speech on the reaction of the listener. (No wonder UNCG has a red-light rating in FIRE's Spotlight database!) The News-Record is therefore (probably unwittingly) prescribing an unconstitutional remedy at the level of individual schools, even while criticizing the prospect of a similar policy at a system-wide level.
A Sunday editorial in The News & Observer takes a stance similar to the News-Record's in a statement against action by Bowles' commission:
[I]n assigning a commission to look at whether the system should establish a code that blocks "hate speech," Bowles is treading on shaky ground. The students were not charged in the incident—though the university is likely to take disciplinary action—in part because of the place where they did their dirty work, in a tunnel dedicated by definition to free speech.
Fortunately, the editorial does not falter on the issue and goes on to make the point that FIRE has made again and again: answer speech not with censorship but with more speech:
[L]et's not forget that while the offending students were out of bounds and engaged in reprehensible behavior, their actions prompted a push-back from fellow students. Once the offending remarks had been painted over, other students responded to them with thoughtful message[s] of peace and reconciliation. Those responses more accurately reflected the "free expression" sentiments of the vast majority of N.C. State students. That kind of process, in which outrageous comments prompt eloquent response and a more thoughtful dialogue ensues, has been part of American life and politics—and universities—since the country began.