by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor | John Locke Foundation
I have in the past expressed concern about the flagging concern for free speech in academe, including at UNC-Chapel Hill. For example, in 2013 when the UNC-CH student government deliberately cut the budget of College Republicans in order to prevent them from bringing conservative speakers to campus, I challenged the UNC community to justify that action in light of one of UNC-CH’s proudest moments, beating back the Speaker Ban Law of the 1960s:
I challenge the UNC community to justify the current attempt to keep [Katie] Pavlich and [Ann] McElhinney out of student earshot as essentially and critically different from keeping Frank Wilkinson and Herbert Aptheker out of student earshot in 1966. I will grant up front that in 1966 the threat to speech was from without, whereas now it is from within, but I will do so with the caveat that it would not really help the university’s case to harp on that distinction. …
If the current leadership at UNC-CH, and the community of Tar Heels at large, willingly stand by petty partisanship and truly anti-intellectual attempts to shut out speakers on campus because of their politics, then they should at least be intellectually honest enough to dig up and destroy the university’s monument to its communitywide effort to fight the Speaker Ban Law of the 1960s.
Who will “raise [their] hand and volunteer” to do that?
This month I am pleased to see that UNC-CH faculty have acted to keep the university consistent with its previous, vigorous defenses of free speech. Faculty adopted a resolution, “On Principles for the Promotion and Protection of Free Speech,” which is a strong moral declaration that recognizes that freely expressing ideas is irrevocably linked to the university’s ultimate mission to educate.
As reported by Carolina Journal,
The document is based on the “Chicago statement,” a set of guidelines laid down in 2015 by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago.
“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is committed to the production and dissemination of knowledge through open inquiry and the fearless exchange of a wide-range of ideas,” the resolution states. “The ability to speak freely, debate vigorously, and engage deeply with differing viewpoints is the bedrock of our aspirations at Carolina. As the oldest state university in the country, with a long and complex history, we are ever aware that speaking out on controversial issues often raises opposition and efforts to silence the outspoken.”
I thought this summary paragraph put it very well:
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
While the resolution is itself not policy and therefore not enforceable, it sets the tone, as CJ points out. That is important in itself. It makes it clear that UNC faculty, as their predecessors, ratify this “solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”